Local news of civil litigation: All the litigation news that's fit to print or broadcast

Herbert M. Kritzer, Robert E. Drechsel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

1 Scopus citations

Abstract

We have sought to provide a basic mapping of the nature of reporting on civil litigation by local television and local newspapers. While we cannot formally generalize from our data due to the nature of the sample design, the findings suggest some potential correctives to the extant research which is based largely on studies of national print media sources. First, while most of the public debate about civil justice focuses on torts, a minority of the reports about lawsuits in both media concern torts (although the single largest category of case type reported on local television news concerned torts). The most often discussed areas of torts, product liability and medical malpractice, actually constitute a minority of the reports within the category of torts. A substantial number of reports concern intentional torts (assault and abuse) or injuries and deaths arising from fires and explosions. Second, relatively few reports on local television news deal with case resolution. Reports of case initiation are much more common. Among case resolutions reported, many more deal with settlements than with adjudicated outcomes. Among the small number of stories reporting actual verdicts, the stories do not strongly favor one side or the other. Third, dollar figures do not feature prominently in most reports. Nonetheless, when amounts of money are mentioned they tend to be fairly large figures. At least in terms of amounts mentioned, our data are generally consistent with studies of case outcomes reported in the print media: it is the larger dollar figures that are reported. Finally, the apparent difference in coverage between national/regional media (as reflected in other studies) and our study of local media is itself a striking finding, though not particularly surprising. The threshold for what becomes news is inherently different for local media with their narrower geographic focus and smaller audiences. To state the obvious, the vast majority of stories well worth coverage by local media generally won't rise to the level of national or even regional media attention. It is only the truly unusual civil case that can achieve national prominence, and such cases almost certainly are not going to be reflective of the norm for civil justice. What does this mean for proponents and opponents of civil justice reform? The fact that lots of suits get filed but few seem to reach resolution might reinforce the idea that large number of suits are without merit (even though most of those that we hear about being filed but not about being resolved actually do lead to settlements or adjudicated resolutions). While dollar figures are usually not mentioned, those that are mentioned-in either local or national media-would lead news consumers to believe that the typical case is considerably larger than it actually is, which in turn would lead them to think that lawsuits frequently, or even usually, involve large sums of money. Alternatively, the fact that it is large verdicts that tend to get reported would serve to create and reinforce the view that juries are out of control. This in turn would reinforce the message of tort reform advocates that damage awards should be capped. To the degree that viewers and readers form their impressions of the need for tort reform primarily from watching or reading national media, where personal injury tort cases dominate reporting of civil justice, the impact would be magnified. Working in the opposite direction is the local reporting of a fair number of lawsuits dealing with consumer issues or significant problems created by products and services purchased by consumers. Good examples among the stories we found are illnesses produced by contaminated lettuce and injuries to pet dogs due to contaminated pet food. From these cases citizens may come to think that although many cases seem unwarranted, many others are clearly justified, and may be the only way ordinary individuals can obtain redress from powerful corporations. Similarly, the large number of suits against government may be seen as an important mechanism of redress against government officials who abuse the power of their offices. Overall, the message from local news reporting of civil litigation is mixed for those who would place limits on lawsuits, whether those would be limits on the amount that can be recovered, limits on legal fees, or direct limits on the cases that can be brought. Some news coverage works to support the proponents of limits, but our analysis shows that, at least at the local media level, much is reported that cuts against the limits proponents would impose. And it is on local market television and newspapers that people seem to rely most heavily for their news.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)16-22
Number of pages7
JournalJudicature
Volume96
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 1 2012

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