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Litigation Journalism:  Good or Bad?

The justice system might be slightly upset when the press engages in litigation journalism, but when used sparingly, this practice actually allows the press to fulfill its mission to disseminate information to better inform the public. 

It can be argued that litigation journalism has the scent of brimstone straight from Hades. Critics moan that litigation journalism is wretched because it helps circumnavigate the justice system.  This is true, but overall, litigation journalism can help free up the legal system to handle other cases.

For example, a young boy was about to start kindergarten.  His parents wanted him to have a new leg brace because the old one was worn and rusted in places, but the insurance company refused to cover the brace because the boy’s father recently switched jobs.  The company told them to return in six months.  The family could have appealed the decision or taken it to court.  Their lawyer solved the problem.  He called the insurance company’s General Counsel.  After communicating back and forth with no luck, the attorney finally said “That child is going to start kindergarten on Tuesday, and he’s going to be accompanied by a new leg brace or a television crew.”

  He got that brace.

When businesses do not act in good faith toward their clients, litigation journalism can place a boa-constrictor type squeeze on those companies.  It amazes me that a business can treat a client poorly behind closed doors, but seem to blush when there’s a chance their dirty deeds will see the light of day… or of a TV camera.

Since these same companies want to protect their reputations, and simultaneously treat clients unfairly, just bring in the boa.  With the litigation journalism squeeze, the number of cases reaching trial can be reduced because companies settle out of court.

If this is a government by the people, for the people, shouldn’t journalists take cases where justice is blatantly being denied to those lacking power, report those cases to the public and allow the masses to make up their minds, send letters of complaint, and boycott the company?  Sometimes power doesn’t listen unless you pinch it where it hurts:  the reputation, which is tightly linked with their coffers.

The book The Press on Trial chronicles how the press covered several landmark cases in American history.  Among them were the trials after the Boston Massacre.  Author Lloyd Chiasson, Jr. writes that the press didn’t mean to tell the public about the details of the event.  “Rather, they functioned as a means to unify public opinion by placing the blame on the ‘enemy’—British authorities…”

The enemy just might be a big insurance company who will allow a little boy to start kindergarten with a rusty leg brace, while possessing the power to authorize a new brace.

If litigation journalism keeps corporations on their toes, by strongly encouraging them to look at and even change wrong policies instead of using the courts to finagle out of simple fairness, then in addition to being a government watchdog, litigation journalism allows the press to act as a watchdog of corporations whose policies don’t always benefit their clients.  Litigation journalism can be another public service function of the press. 

Copyright © 2008 by Elizabeth Anderson