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Mixed Signals

Photos and the U.S. Supreme Court: Nice Job, Judge Kennedy

5/26/2011 11:54 PM

Recently I read with much interest articles about broadcasting to mobile devices, and how it — as a trend — has been around for many decades. They just will not go away. After all, they help us all communicate better.

I’m in stark agreement.

Like that trend, another trend I like and see continuing is that of using everything you can — within reason — to better tell, and better communicate, your story.

Which brings me to California-born and -bred Justice Anthony Kennedy (who also happens — during law school in northern California - to have been my greatly admired constitutional law professor), and his recent move to include (for the first time ever, by God!), PICTURES!!!! in a formal United States Supreme Court decision. And even though they are not seen until page 52 of Justice Kennedy’s 52-page Brown vs. Plata majority decision, these three simple photos have a exceedingly powerful effect (almost by themselves substantially dismissing the much weaker arguments of the court’s four dissenters, justices Alito, Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas).

The decision in point, perhaps appropriately and perhaps also ironically so, involved prisoners suing the State of California (once more) for cruel and unusual punishment tied to extreme overcrowding in prisons.

What I am just so taken by is the ability of this court, and of this justice, to buck the tide and thus tell a better - and thus more convincing - story. After all, in essence, that’s all that a court decision really is: it represents a story of two or more sides of an issue or dispute, and someone’s decision as to how it will be decided (and often ended).

By deciding to and by implementing the idea of adding a photo, Judge Kennedy simply tells a better story. Thus, by showing a photo of the actual overcrowding, Judge Kennedy more effectively convinces a greater sum of his audience that his decision is the right one.

What is also worth noting is that no matter how eloquent his written passages, Judge Kennedy was willing to submerge his pride and his ego in exchange for the best message…and if a photo is that tool, then he is willing to leave it at that.

Judge Kennedy is not the first to take this kind of an action. The Wall Street Journal broke from its decades-old tradition of only showing graphics that were black and white, and which were an artist-like depiction, rather than an actual photo. But along the way, the wiser minds at The WSJ recognized that, as storytellers, they really could do a better and more convincing job of it by showing an actual photo.

Well, the U.S. Supreme Court’s storytelling is really not that different, and thus it must be heartily lauded for having stepped away from a rather mindless tradition, in order to better and more convincingly tell the best, most relevant, and most helpful story to all that would listen (or watch)…no matter whether that audience consists of a first year law student, a layperson, or the president of the United States.

Nice job, Justice Kennedy. Mixed Signals is proud to say, job well done.

Communication just got better for all of us. Now to add videos as a communications tool !?!
Jimmy Schaeffler is chairman and CSO of Carmel-by-the-Sea-based consultancy The Carmel Group (www.carmelgroup.com).

September