There are two types of lawyers, those who love the media, promptly return calls, are proactive about publicizing their cases, causes and clients, and those who fear the media. Some lawyers see the media as an enemy, hostile to their clients and cause while others do not know how to work with the media and fear media contact. This article is for those of you who in the latter group.
Lawyers who are trying to bring about social change or institutional reform through litigation have an obligation to educate the public about the realities of police misconduct and civil and human rights abuses within American prisons and jails to bring about progressive change. You need to work with the media to achieve this goal.
In many cases, especially police shooting cases, the media will already be covering the story. Police PR people will be in full spin control trying to obtain favorable coverage. It is important to counter this effort. Publicity can create favorable public opinion which may induce earlier and larger settlements.
Why should you care about the media? Cases are tried in court, not the media, right? Most politicians and government agencies are very conscious of their public image. Getting media coverage helps your case. There’s rarely an isolated event. A newspaper article about a cop abusing your client may result in calls from other people who were also victimized by the same cop, or from witnesses to the events in your case. Even comments by the potential defendant may prove helpful to your case.
You should not underestimate the power of the media. A number of significant reforms have occurred as a result of media exposes, for example the exonerations of innocent people from prison. Exposes have prodded judges and prosecutors to act after lawyers had tried and failed for years. However, this is usually a long process. A steady stream of stories may provide an impetus to institutional reform that litigation alone may not.
How the Daily Newspapers Work
Understanding the dynamics of corporate media, especially its daily newspapers, is essential to getting good press. Most large daily newspapers are editor driven. Reporters covering a given beat will rarely be on that beat more than two or three years so they don’t have in depth knowledge of a topic. This means the editors have more control but, it also makes reporters more dependent on friendly sources. Reporters work under tough deadlines and pressure to generate a certain number of news stories each week. A “white collar plantation” is how one reporter describes it. Reporters working beats like the courts and police typically have a good relationship with cops and prosecutors since they can feed them stories, grant or deny access to records, crime scenes, and witnesses.
Pitching Your Story
Know your local media. When you see an article critical of police or sympathetic to civil rights plaintiffs note the reporter’s name. Generally the police beat reporters are a poor choice for a story critical of police because they work closely with police and prosecutors. The court beat or local news reporters are usually a better choice. When you have a story to pitch keep it simple, if you can’t explain it in a few sentences, it is too complex. Have a PDF file of meaningful documents you can e mail (smoking gun memos, complaint, the settlement or verdict sheet, etc.) along with a press release, under 700 words, saying why the case or issue is newsworthy. If your story includes pictures or you have a client or witness who can be interviewed, your chances of success is even better.
First time you pitch a story, send it to a reporters you think are most sympathetic. Never have more than one pitch out at a time and don’t send it to the next reporter unless the first reporter has turned it down. If they turn it down, try the editors since they ultimately decide what goes into a paper and what is or isn’t newsworthy. But don’t send a reporter a story canned by an editor. Find out who the editors are for local news. They tend to stick around. Try to build a rapport with them. Don’t expect total accuracy, if you keep it simple the main points will be correct.
Consider pitching your story to the local legal paper. Most big cities have a legal daily or weekly that covers stories from a legal angle. They also tend to be less biased towards government defendants since their readership tends to be lawyers on both sides of the issues. Reporters for all the major city newspapers read and follow the trade journals. A story in one may very well result in a story in the latter.
A more oblique way of obtaining media access is to become a source for quotes as an expert on the topic. You can market yourself as an expert by e mailing writers with short, to the point comments about articles they have written, complimenting them if they get it right, helpfully pointing out any mistakes in a friendly manner. Once you have been quoted a few times you will become a known to the media as a resource when a reporter needs a quote. It helps to be brief, to the point, witty and insightful. Of course you must be a reliable source; if your facts are not accurate, reporters will be wary of calling you. You don’t have to be spontaneous, if need be think of what you are going to say beforehand and have it ready when the need arises. Potential clients and jurors are more likely to trust someone who is quoted in the media on a regular basis.
Return reporters calls and e mails promptly. Remember the daily reporters are usually on a six PM deadline, 9 PM if it’s the night shift. If they don’t have your quote by then, no matter how good, it isn’t going in. Having a reputation as someone who is accessible and returns calls promptly will get you more points than being the most eloquent lawyer since Clarence Darrow. Being known as an advocate for the disadvantaged and those whose civil rights have been violated gives you a platform to educate the public and will result in more referrals and generate more media exposure.
Is every police or prison case newsworthy? Probably not. But if you have sympathetic victims, bad defendants or egregious facts you may get a decent story out of it. It is also depends on the news cycle. It is better to aim for mid week days for press releases when news is slower than Monday or Friday and also don’t try to compete with big events like presidential elections, sports events, etc. Daily reporters always look for a timely news hook, so work on media contact before significant events, like when the lawsuit is filed, before trial, immediately after the verdict or settlement. If you miss one, there are several more opportunities in the life of a case. I do press activity around these case milestones: filing of the complaint, summary judgment ruling, or settlement or a favorable appeal.
Publicize Your Wins!
Lawyers are always busy and as you settle or win one case, you are moving on to the next one. Take the time to publicize the case you won. I spend a significant part of my newsgathering time playing phone and e mail tag with lawyers who have won or settled cases involving prison or jail litigation. Especially with settlements, all too often the parties involved are the only ones with the information and the defendants aren’t keen on publicizing their losses and payouts.
Upon settling a case you should immediately issue a press release with details, a few good quotes and the case information, especially the amount settled for, and distribute it to your media contacts. Publicity about victories will generate more referrals and it also lets your colleagues in the police misconduct/civil rights bar know what is happening and hopefully raises the bar in similar cases. You should also send a report on the outcome to the verdict and settlement reporters as a matter of routine. In some jurisdictions government lawyers make a regular habit of reporting all defense verdicts to the verdict and liability reporters while plaintiff’s lawyers don’t. This leads to skewed data making it appear to be futile to bring police or jail cases in those jurisdictions.
When journalists who are favorable to your causes and clients call, the worst thing you can do is to blow them off. You lose a valuable opportunity at free, favorable publicity and at educating the public. I am surprised at how often I learn that an NPAP member won or settled a substantial civil rights case against law enforcement officials through news feeds (virtually all from reporters who cover local and state government) yet the have not even posted it on the NPAP list serv. The only people who win from secrecy in settlements are government defendants.
Disseminating information about verdict and settlement amounts is critical for the whole profession as well as the plaintiffs as it allows plaintiffs and their lawyers to more accurately value their cases, keeps defendants from low balling the parties and if the amounts get high enough and public enough may even bring about some push for accountability. Confidential settlements are another topic, but as a general rule, they are illegal as applied to the expenditure of government funds and poor public policy even when legal as applied to private prison companies and such.
Get a Website
If you and your firm don’t have a website, start one. A good website is a great place where, at little cost, you can advertise, tell the world about you, your cases and report the details of the cases you are litigating and have won. Public interest groups like the ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center and NPAP have good websites.Virtually all journalists will Google a source. It helps if they can learn about you from information presented by you on your website. A good website verifies your credibility and experience. The expense of a good website is minimal and the potential benefit is great.
What About Radio and TV?
This article has focused almost exclusively on getting your story told by daily newspaper reporters. What about radio and TV? The secret of TV and radio producers is that they all read the daily newspapers for story ideas. Get your story in the paper and chances are you will be contacted by a local TV or radio station. If you have good video footage of police or prison misconduct, offer it on an “exclusive” basis to the TV producer at the station of your choice. It is the producers, not the talking heads who read the news, who are responsible for news content and who do the footwork. TV is a visual medium so no visuals usually results in little interest in your story. Want to get established as a national expert on police misconduct issues? Then advertise in Radio and TV Interview Report, www.rtir.com, a magazine that is read by thousands of TV and radio producers.
Publicizing your cases is important to the public and the civil rights bar in general, especially victories. You neglect the media at your peril and do a disservice to your clients, past and future, colleagues and the public interest. Like everything else, there are local nuances and it is easier to get covered by the local paper. Once it goes out in one paper it will be put on the Associated Press news wire where it will be picked up by many other papers in the state and internet search engines and others. In early April, 2007, Prison Legal News settled a lawsuit against the California Department of Corrections. Between our attorneys at Rosen, Bien and Galvan in San Francisco and myself the settlement received two news stories, one in the Monterey Herald and one by the Associated Press reporter. The AP story was then picked up by the San Diego Union Tribune, SF Chronicle, Sacramento Bee, San Jose Mercury News and most of the daily papers in California. Alas, it didn’t get picked up by radio or TV that I know of. When I have been quoted in the New York Times, my phone rings for a week.
Correcting Bad Stories
There are some stories you don’t want to get out or which are biased, untrue and otherwise not good for you and your clients. The worst thing is the factually wrong article. If you can find a FACTUAL error in a story, not an opinion or a conclusion, but a fact, you can write to the editor and specifically demand that they print a correction. Pretty much all daily newspapers have by laws requiring them to do this if it is called to their attention that they have reported a fact wrong. This looks bad on the reporter and their editor and makes them more careful the next time they do a story on the topic and if they think people who are knowledgeable are paying attention may result in the story not getting covered.
If you really want to play hardball and have found more than one factual error in a story, demand the one correction be printed. Wait until that is done then have someone else (spouse, colleague, etc.) send in a demand for the second error to be corrected. That tends to get the attention of higher management when a story has more than one factual error.
Get Your Message Out There
Properly used and cultivated the media can be helpful. How you frame your issues will have an impact. I once had a magazine editor tell me, when I pitched him on a story about the Washington prison system banning sexually explicit magazines, that his readers wouldn’t be sympathetic. I told him free speech and government censorship issues are deeply ingrained among most Americans, the article ran and got a good response.
You ignore the media at your peril. Properly cultivated the media is a powerful tool in the cause of ending police and prison abuse. Incorporating a few easy steps into your case routine, before, during and after litigation will help immeasurably.
Paul Wright is the editor and founder of Prison Legal News, a monthly magazine published monthly since 1990 that focuses on detention facility news and litigation. www.prisonlegalnews.org. He is a journalist and advocate on behalf of the human rights of prisoners. Paul is an active member of NPAP. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
You need to be aware of your state’s ethical rules on publicity when you speak to the press. In most states in a civil case you cannot make a statement to the press if you should know that it will have a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing an adjudicative proceeding. You need to be particularly careful when you speak to the press during or shortly before trial. In most states a lawyer may state information that is contained in a pleading without fear of an ethical violation. Since you draft the pleadings in your case you should include the facts that you seek to publicize in the pleading starting with the complaint. If your complaint tells a compelling story of government misconduct you are more likely to attract the attention of the media.
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