Distorting the Law: Politics, Media, and the Litigation Crisis

By Drechsel, Robert E. | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Distorting the Law: Politics, Media, and the Litigation Crisis


Drechsel, Robert E., Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


Distorting the Law: Politics, Media, and the Litigation Crisis. William Haltom and Michael McCann. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004. 347 pp. $20 pbk.

Did you hear about the psychic who sued after allegedly losing her powers as a result of a CAT scan? Or how about the woman who collected big bucks from McDonald's after she spilled hot coffee on herself in a car? Such are the "tort tales" that led William Haltom and Michael McCann, political scientists at the University of Puget Sound and University of Washington-Seattle respectively, to produce a useful and insightful study of the role of mass media in the so-called "litigation crisis" and movement for tort reform.

Tort tales, unlike fairy tales, generally have some basis in fact. A psychic did sue for injury suffered in connection with a CAT scan (for pain caused by a severe allergic reaction to the dye injected before the scan, and even on that claim she lost); a woman did receive a jury award for burns suffered from spilled McDonald's coffee (but she suffered third-degree burns-McDonald's served its coffee extraordinarily hot and had done nothing despite 700 previous bum incidents, and the award was ultimately reduced). But in these cases-and many others like them-something happened to distort reality and transform the tales into powerful ammunition for the tort reform movement. A good share of the blame for the distortion, Haltom and McCann suggest, lies with the media.

It isn't that journalists set out to distort the law. Rather, it is the conventions of journalistic practice and news judgment that lead to journalistic stories that mesh so nicely and functionally with the tort tales that activist reformers love to propagate. And both types of tales resonate with the strong cultural norm of individual responsibility.

As Haltom and McCann put it:

[M]edia coverage of tort cases tends to efface the human aspects of pain and suffering among citizens harmed by unsafe products or professional incompetence. Injured citizens are represented instead primarily as contentious plaintiffs in dramatic legal disputes, contesting similarly depersonalized defendants. Actual experiences of consumer anguish are ignored or eclipsed by attention to the familiar legal roles of adversaries and the large monetary sums at stake. Moralistic judgments about the relative responsibility, reasonableness, and character of legal disputants are encouraged by news practices over assessments that turn on moral sentiments of compassion and empathy for the "private" injuries of victims.

Haltom and McCann reach such conclusions based on comprehensive, multimethod study. …

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