In early June the media became the story in a Chippewa County courtroom. The Eau Claire Leader-Telegram chose an approaching trial as the subject of a feature that should have never seen the light of day.
Not because the case was likely to be a subject of controversy, but because the story was so badly written that both sides agreed it had hurt the chances of there being a fair trial. A “free” press had nearly cost a young woman her chance at justice.
From the story:
“If you have jury duty in Chippewa County next week you may want to stop reading now. You might be selected to sit on a civil trial that could last up to three weeks.”
When both sides in the case raised concerns about the story, the presiding judge postponed the case for more than a year. Central facts were wrong and past criminal charges were attributed to the wrong people. Justice might eventually be served someday, but not until the summer of 2017. All of this resulted from a simple news story.
“Call it what it was,” said Christopher Stombaugh, one of several lawyers involved in the case. “This was a cynical attempt to get readers.”
The Leader-Telegram violated a cardinal rule of journalism. Instead of covering the story they became the story. After waiting six years for a trial, a young woman left paralyzed from a traffic crash will now have to wait longer.
Any reporter can make a mistake, but that’s why newspapers have editors. Editors catch mistakes. But when a bad story goes through the vetting system and no one hits pause, it’s more than a systemic failure; it’s a gift with a bow tied around to it to those who see media bias lurking around every corner.
It’s that perception of media bias that concerns most clients. Bias exists in every profession, but the best reporters set it aside and concentrate on the job before them. Of the hundreds of stories I’ve placed in the media, the few with mistakes could be blamed more on assumptions than agendas.
My advice is this; if a reporter rings you up, take the call. But as soon as you are on the phone, be prepared to do some teaching. For most reporters, the law is a foreign language. You’re fluent and they’re trying to read the train schedule.
“What’s your story about?” should be your first question.
If the reporter can’t or won’t explain it, be cautious. It’s a sign he may not understand the topic yet.
Your choice is to either to use your status as an expert to help the reporter shape the story or decide to participate in the first place.
The words “Off the record,” can be easily misunderstood. They offer an opportunity to be especially candid without being quoted.
The thing to remember is that any plan to go “off the record” must be declared — and agreed upon — in advance. If you say something embarrassing you can’t go back later and say, “That’s off the record.” Once the genie is out of the bottle, he’s way out of the bottle. Unless you trust the reporter it’s better to assume everything is on the record.
Think of the interview as your closing argument to the thousands who will see the final story. If the “jury” (meaning the reporter) doesn’t understand your point, he can’t write a story reflecting the facts. Teach, don’t preach. The story will be better and you will come across as more intelligent.
Your other option is to call the media yourself. It has always amazed me that some of the brightest legal minds in Wisconsin would never consider calling a reporter to pitch a story.
The truth is that, by following a few basic principles, you can become your own best publicist.
Every day the media are looking for stories that will give them a leg up on their competition. Make sure your ideas have broad appeal and are not meant just to promote your practice. Those sorts of pitches are the origins of advertisements, which they’ll be happy to sell you. Stories are different.
Good stories have three common characteristics — they are interesting, they are compelling, and they are important for readers to know.
In the case presented in the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, it’s hard to say we should trust the media because they failed so miserably. The story was so badly done that it caused the trial to be delayed. It also hurt a young woman by postponing her trial date once again after going through so much emotional upheaval.
It may be more than a year before the trial restarts. Procedural delays are one thing.
Delays because a newspaper story crossed the line between observer and participant are unacceptable, though. “This media delay,” said Stombaugh, “was a denial of full justice.”
Journalism took a black eye because of one reporter’s sophomoric attempt to be clever. It didn’t work and it hurt a young woman who only wanted justice.
Her name is Carlea Jo Lauer and all I can do is apologize. You deserved better.
Much in the same way that attorneys ask clients to trust them every day, you will be a more effective advocate if you can learn to work with, if not trust, the media. Teach them when needed, challenge them when warranted, and correct them if they make a mistake. Also, though, look for common ground.
In spite of failures like the ones seen in Eau Claire story, it’s usually better to work with the media than to ignore them. They are the “voice” that lawyers need to sometimes find the truth. If you can find the middle ground between what you want and what the media need, you’ll have only made yourself and your practice stronger.