The Court of Public Opinion

Steven A. Adelman

In my law practice, people often get catastrophically hurt or killed in public places like stadiums, arenas, and hotels. Friends think my practice is cool. Because of the inherent (prurient) interest in my clients and their stories, I often have the opportunity to seek media coverage, either for my clients or against the other side. Usually, we resist. Here’s why.

Most individuals don’t want their dirty laundry aired in public. When I represent a victim or their family, as much as they want to tell their story, they still want to maintain some sense of privacy. I tell my clients that perhaps even more than on cross-examination at trial, a good investigative reporter will look beyond the tidy story we might like to tell. Besides being the reporter’s job not to uncritically swallow our version of events, years of experience will have taught them that reality is messy. Just about everyone has something in their past that they would prefer to keep there. Trying their case in the media means potentially losing that control.

This is even more true when I represent a public venue. The last thing management wants is for the public to learn that something terrible happened on their premises. Even if we think the venue has no fault at all, people will remember the pictures they see and the gory details they hear, not our exhaustive defense. Those associations in the minds of potential guests can hurt the business’ bottom line even more than a settlement or jury verdict. This is the reason public information officers are trained to stick to dry facts and never to speculate – a boring story will quickly get shoved aside by the next lurid headline.

Although I am lucky enough to have a friend who works in television, I tell my clients that the media is not their friend. Our interest in winning a lawsuit is entirely different than the media’s interest in reporting a compelling story which in turn will draw more advertisers. As firmly as we believe in our side, the press will reach their own conclusions and report the story however they think it makes the most sense to their audience.

When the stakes are high, as they are in most of my cases, clients get more risk averse. Eventually, they usually decide that whatever possible benefit they might get by embarrassing the other side, they fear losing control of the story. So they return to the original plan, which is to try their case in a court of law rather than in the court of public opinion.

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