This is part three of a five-part series on cameras in courtrooms.
SPRINGFIELD — When the Illinois Supreme Court announced this year that the 14th Circuit would become the first in the state to host news cameras in trial courtrooms, it gave area media unique access to the justice system.
But it also prompted unprecedented coordination between news outlets in the northwest Illinois circuit, which includes the Quad Cities media market.
To prepare for the historic opportunity — Illinois previously never allowed cameras in trial courts — news organizations met to discuss ways to share responsibilities.
That coordination, local media officials said, proved key to transitioning cameras into courts.
"What is making it work here is the fact that everybody, all the media people, are working together as one," said Mike Ortiz, chief photographer at KWQC-TV in Davenport, Iowa, and the 14th Circuit's media coordinator. "That has made it very smooth."
In January, Chief Supreme Court Justice Thomas L. Kilbride announced the experimental program, which allows extended media coverage in certain circuits. The 14th Circuit received approval first based on the local media's experience with Iowa courts, which adopted a cameras policy in 1979.
As in Iowa, the program requires media outlets to request permission to cover proceedings in advance and limits the number of cameras in a courtroom.
While area media covered Iowa courts on a regular basis, Ortiz said, the equipment they used for pool coverage became outdated over time. Most TV stations now use digital, high-definition cameras, but the equipment that captured footage in Iowa courtrooms delivered a lower-quality picture.
When news broke that the 14th Circuit would be the first pilot site, area media wanted to find a better way to do things, Ortiz said.
"We were becoming obsolete as far as equipment and technology," he said. "We kicked ourselves to move forward into the digital world once we got into Illinois."
At a meeting that included the four Quad Cities TV stations and several area newspapers, Ortiz said, reporters and photographers set their equipment on a table and began devising a way for all outlets to share footage and images.
They developed a unique "mult box," a piece of equipment that allows one camera to feed audio and video to several others. In a short amount of time, the box can be set up in a separate area outside a courtroom with one cord connecting it to the camera inside.
But if a media outlet can't make it to the courtroom, the group also created a file server to host photos and videos that any area station or newspaper can access.
Jan Touney, executive editor of the Quad-City Times, said that makes for a unique arrangement between organizations that typically compete against each other.
But as media resources get stretched thinner and thinner, she said, the pooling of images and video works well.
"We still send our own reporters, but in terms of visuals, it seems much more logical to share," she said.
As media coordinator, Ortiz serves as the primary liaison between news outlets and the courts. Once someone sends a coverage request to him, he completes a form that he must hand-deliver or mail to the local court and the attorneys for both parties.
He also sends an e-mail to area media detailing the request and the availability of files on the server. While news outlets typically hide coverage plans, Ortiz said, the limits on cameras in courts simply don't allow for complete secrecy.
"This is a privilege for everybody — it's not competition," he said. "This was meant for everybody, for all media to have. That's the mentality and we've had no issues whatsoever."
Area media agree that the murder trial of accused spree killer Nicholas Sheley, set to begin Sept. 10 in Whiteside County, will serve as the first major test of the cameras policy. Ortiz said he plans to develop a coverage rotation for that case, with media outlets splitting up daily responsibilities.
Alex T. Paschal, chief photographer for Sauk Valley Media, said the policy doesn't always foster the best images, as he often must stand in the back corner of a courtroom.
But he said he typically leaves a hearing with photos of the defendant and some reaction shots from the attorneys and judge.
Cameras don't seem to bother practitioners, he said.
"I don't know if they expected it to be paparazzi-esque or what," he said. "But being professionals, we understand this is important. We have pretty big cases going on down here right now and we don't want to ruin anything."