With a sweep of his pen, President George Bush signed class-action reform into law and earned an early second-term victory. The new law, approved February 18, forces large class-action suits into federal court, limiting the mega-dollar awards popular in some local jurisdictions. It was the latest round of a long fight over runaway litigation that has swept through states across the nation.
Rather than seize on this issue, the major news media have ignored tort reform, embracing one-sided, anti-business stories that promote lawyers as fighting for 'Davids' against the 'Goliaths' of industry. The media didn't acknowledge tort reform as an issue even when a man running for vice president was a career trial lawyer.
To see how the media addressed runaway litigation, the Free Market Project analyzed 276 civil litigation stories in news magazines including Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report, as well as coverage of news magazine TV programs and the evening news on ABC, NBC, and CBS from November 1, 2003 to October 31, 2004. Among the findings:
- Media Ignore Tort Reform 85 Percent of the Time: Even with nationally known trial lawyer John Edwards running as a Democratic vice presidential candidate, the media only had a prominent discussion of tort reform in 6 percent of their stories. Nine percent of the time they simply made passing mentions of the issue.
- Class-Action Stories Barely Discuss Reform: Class-action reform has been in process for years, but only one story about class-action lawsuits (out of 30) had a major discussion of remedies to this aspect of the legal system. For more information or to set up an interview, contact Tim Scheiderer at 703-683-5004 x126
- Defendants Get No Face Time in One-Third of Stories: Defendants, typically businesses, were denied comment in 36 percent of all stories. Reporters didn't even include a statement from the defendants saying they had refused to comment in most of those stories. This contradicts basic journalistic principles of fairness. U.S. News & World Report was the worst of the media we studied, allowing no comment from defendants in 57 percent of its stories.
- Stories Take Plaintiff's View Far More Often Than Defendant's: Stories were skewed toward the plaintiff's viewpoint. They were reported from the plaintiff's perspective 49 percent of the time, more than three times as often as they took the view of the defendants. Only 36 percent were balanced. CBS told the story from the view of the defendant 64 percent of the time. Newsweek was the most balanced media with close to a perfect balance between the two sides.
- Liberal Groups Unidentified, Conservatives Labeled: Liberal groups were quoted almost twice as often as conservatives or industry spokespeople (74 times to 43 times). When they were cited, liberal activists were identified as such only 31 percent of the time. Conservatives or industry representatives were labeled 47 percent of the time. That fails to take into account good journalistic practices at ABC. Without that network, the remaining five media labeled liberals only 25 percent and conservatives 75 percent.
- ABC the Best, NBC the Worst: ABC had the most tort reform coverage of any media studied. The network was also the best about labeling conservatives and liberals in a consistent manner. NBC had a huge tendency to tell the story from the view of the plaintiff and a clear bias in labeling only conservative or industry spokespeople. It labeled liberal activists only 8 percent of the time (1 out of 13) and conservatives or businesspeople 86 percent (6 out of 7 times).
In an op-ed co-written by FMP National Chairman Herman Cain, recent Senate candidate and former CEO of the National Restaurant Association, Cain commented on the results: 'Virtually everyone in America understands that the nation is a litigation battleground. Businesses are under constant attack by lawsuits that cost the economy hundreds of billions of dollars each year. Unfortunately, 'virtually everyone' means everyone except the mainstream media has a clue.'
The study's analysis ended with five recommendations for the media to improve coverage of runaway litigation: 1) Look at lawyers as critically as businesses; 2) Examine the issue of tort reform 3) Cover lawsuit stories in a balanced fashion and stop relying on always presenting the story from the side of the 'victim'; 4) Create a consistent policy for labeling experts; and 5) Note who the paid advisers are so readers and viewers understand the agendas of all involved in the story.