LOCAL NEWS OF CIVIL LITIGATION: All the Litigation News That's Fit to Print or Broadcast

Article excerpt

Local media coverage of civil litigation differs significantly from coverage in major national media, with an emphasis on certain types oteases and a focus on large dollar amounts. What does this mean for the future of civil justice reform?

In a brief article in Judicature ten years ago, Kritzer reported that the public's perception of typical court awards in civil cases far exceeded the actual awards. While median awards typically were on the order of $30,000, the median estimate by survey respondents of the "typical" award was $100,000 and about a quarter of those providing an estimate said the typical award was $1 million or more.1 Where does this perception come from? The simple answer suggested by prior research is that it comes from news reporting,2 which typically focuses on big cases, what Haltom and McCann labeled "holler of the dollar."3

The public's perception of civil justice issues such as the typical damage awards is of central importance in the recurring debate about civil justice "reform."4 Players in this debate seek to shape the public's perception of how civil justice works in the United States in order to achieve their ends. Proponents of reform contend that Americans are too prone to turn to litigation, and often do so in situations where such action is unwarranted, or even downright silly; one need only think about the "tort tales" that have been, and continue to be, propagated even after they have been debunked.5 An important question is the degree to which news reporting tends to support the image "reformers" seek to create.

The research on media reporting of civil litigation has drawn heavily on printed national news sources such as the New York Times and national newsweeklies.6 While some of these national sources also serve a local market, they do not constitute the primary news source for most Americans. The two most heavily used sources are local television news and local newspapers;7 in this article we present an analysis based on these two sources.

Prior Research On News Coverage of Civil Litigation

Studies of reporting of litigation have focused on print sources,8 primarily print sources with national circulation. Much of that work focused on reporting of tort litigation,9 although there are studies that focus more generally on civil litigation10 or other areas such as discrimination.11 A major focus has been on how case outcomes are covered,12 and the findings are consistent in showing that plaintiffs' verdicts are more commonly reported than defense verdicts, and that the size of the awards is much greater than is the case for all plaintiffs' awards. A second focus is on the type of case that gets reported, and within torts the research shows that certain types of claims, particularly products liability claims13 and perhaps medical malpractice claims,14 are over-reported, although from what we know of typical verdicts,13 it may be that this "bias" in the types of cases reported reflects where the larger awards are likely to occur. Only one study has examined coverage over time, and it shows that coverage has increased over the approximately 20 year period (1980-1998) they examined.16

Haltom and McCann looked at the frequency of stories about cases not involving personal injury and found that none of the other areas constitute more than one percent of the issues covered in news reports.17 Haltom briefly examined at what stages of the litigation process cases get reported in the print media, and found that the most commonly reported stage is a "decision" (38.2 percent of articles) followed by filing (29.5 percent);10 he also reports length of articles, which he found averages 537 words.1" Nielsen and Beim looked specifically at discrimination cases as reported in national print media and several regional newspapers; they compared what the media reports to data covering discrimination cases litigated in the federal courts. As in the studies of torts, they found that the media overreports plaintiff wins and the size of awards. …