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Civil justice in the age of new media

A new study released today by the national consumer rights organization, Center for Justice & Democracy, finds that news coverage of civil jury verdicts fails to provide an accurate picture of the civil justice system and that certain new media trends are making the situation worse. The study, “Headline Blues: Civil Justice In The Age Of New Media,” follows up on CJ&D’s January 2001 study, Reading Between the Headlines: The Media and Jury Verdicts. That report found the media’s coverage of verdicts to be deeply skewed, fueling common misperceptions that civil juries routinely award plaintiffs eye-popping verdicts for frivolous claims. Headline Blues finds this still to be true but certain new trends are producing even more distorted reporting.

According to CJ&D’s Executive Director Joanne Doroshow, “What people are learning about civil jury verdicts is becoming more and more skewed due to a number of factors. 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. 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.”

“No matter how someone gets their news, whether from a local TV anchor, an online newspaper or blog, a car radio or a Twitter feed, most initial stories are still being written by journalists and editors at news organizations,” said Doroshow. “However, accuracy in reporting is often not receiving the attention it should. For example, we found that a verdict subject to state law that automatically ‘caps’ damages regardless of what a jury awards, is clearly something about which readers should be told. Yet from our analysis, this is not being done, or at least not being done clearly and responsibly.

“The economic pressures facing shrinking newsrooms, combined with the accelerating speed at which news must be produced, means that the public is being exposed to an overwhelming amount of brief, sensationalized and often incomplete coverage of civil jury verdicts. This is harming the public discourse about the civil justice system and preventing everyday people from understanding how important this system is to them in their daily lives.”

A copy of the full study can be found here.


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