The news media often are criticized for distorted coverage of the legal system.

But is digital journalism – news distributed via websites, Facebook, Twitter and other electronic channels – making matters worse?

A report from a New York-based consumer advocacy group, the Center for Justice & Democracy, contends that is exactly the case. The center has long argued that by covering only the most sensational outcomes, the media offer a skewed view of how the civil courts work and create the false impression that plaintiffs routinely win big verdicts for frivolous claims.

But now, the center contends, readers increasingly are dependent on headlines that appear in short computer links. And when readers don’t click on the links for the full story, they get less context than ever.

“Digital news aggregators like Google and social media like Facebook and Twitter function by communicating only the briefest set of words and often just headlines,” Joanne Doroshow, the center’s executive director, said in a news release. “These headlines commonly  emphasize large monetary awards, which do not reflect typical verdicts, and rarely note the misconduct that led to the verdict in the first place.”

To carry out its research, which updates a report it released a decade ago, the center searched on Google News and 25 of the most-viewed blogs for news stories on civil jury verdicts and settlements in cases involving physical injuries. The research tracked an 80-day period this spring and early summer and identified more than 50 articles.

Of the reported trials that were won by plaintiffs, the median jury award was $4.6 million. This was nearly 192 times higher than the national average of $24,000 for damage awards to victorious plaintiffs.

In addition, the center’s review of the articles found coverage of six plaintiff victories for every one defense victory. Yet, throughout the civil justice system, plaintiffs win just over half of the time in cases that go to trial. And the vast majority of cases never get to that stage — they are dismissed or settled.

Another flaw the center cited in news coverage was a frequent failure to mention prominently, if at all, state-imposed caps on damages that can limit payouts to a fraction of the amounts awarded by a jury. The report said “these terrible journalistic failures … perpetuate the same kind of myths about the frequency of high jury awards that led to legislative caps in the first place.”

But Ted Frank, a litigation reform expert at the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research in New York, said the report was guilty of an omission of its own – it neglected to mention that defendants are hurt by shallow news coverage, too. He said defendants sometimes are demonized in news stories about lawsuits, only to get relatively scant coverage when the cases are thrown out.

In other cases, even if defendants never suffer a defeat in court, they may pay out large sums in settlements to plaintiffs. That might limit a company’s negative publicity, but it also can leave the public in the dark about the costs of litigation.

Frank, a longtime critic of the center’s research, placed much of the blame for news coverage that exaggerates jury verdicts on plaintiffs lawyers. “The lawyers behind the big-money verdicts have a vested interest interest in promoting the success of their cases,” Frank said. “When they win a big verdict, the press releases go out.”


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