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The Misinformation of the Media in Personal Injury Cases

The front page story of today’s Globe & Mail (print) newspaper read “Woman at centre of scandal breaks silence“; referring to the complainant who stepped forward in the sexual assault lawsuit against Hockey Canada and some players.

More interesting were the comments from the personal injury lawyer who says “in watching the coverage of his client’s complaint it has been frustrating to see misinformation circulate that she did not cooperate with police.

It’s really hard to read about stories in the print media, when they don’t have access to all of the information and yet they report on it as if they do. It’s not in the best interest of any lawyer to litigate a case through the media. In fact, if sensitive information about a case gets out into the public before the case has resolved, it will likely jeopardize and tarnish the outcome of the case entirely.

Assaults, and sexual assault cases often get reported in the media. We hear it all the time, and tend to cast judgment based on the reporting itself, or based on our own predisposed beliefs.

Unfortunately, the reporters and their news outlets often get things wrong.  Or perhaps its the Twitter Trolls or amateur internet commentators in the comment sections who just don’t get it.

It happened to our office and to one of our client’s. In a highly publicized case out of Peterborough, our client was assaulted at Riley’s Pub downtown. The bouncers were so aggressive that they broke our client’s leg/ankle. Our client sought medical assistance from the police.

Instead, the three officers referred to the man as a “pussy,” a “douche,” a “drunk idiot,” told him to “walk it off” and told him to take a cab to the hospital where he was eventually treated for the serious leg injury, investigators found. An independent police review has found “evidence of misconduct” involving two Peterborough-Lakefield police officers and a department sergeant.

The complaint against the officers eventually settled outside of the formal Tribunal.

When this story first broke, members of the community thought it to be a sham, or a charade to catch attention. It couldn’t possibly be true. But it was.

The outcry against my client was far more negative than the outcry against the Police. Which was so odd at the time given that the police were captured on video saying these things. They also knew nothing about my client. He was cast as a punk trouble maker. In fact, he was a well educated student, from a good home, without any prior criminal history.

So, what’s the deal?

It’s not in the best interest of a personal injury lawyer; or his/her client to host a daily or weekly press conference on a “hot” case which has attracted the media’s attention.

It’s also not in the media’s best interest to report on cases where they can’t get their facts straight to the point the story which they are reporting isn’t accurate. Or, perhaps it is in their best interest, so long as the story attracts clicks and eyeballs. Because that’s what the media has become in the internet age.

It’s not necessarily in the accuracy of the reporting itself. It’s how many clicks and eyeballs the headline or the story generates. The more clicks and eyeballs, the more which they can charge advertisers or the more pay-per-click revenue which they can generate.linkedin-2-300x300

Digging deeper, we now run a 24/hr, 7 day per week news cycle. We have to fill up that news cycle with something; even if it’s not accurate or news worthy. In a generation where content is king, there is no Judge or Arbitrator to reign in on false or misleading content. Does a reporter go to jail if s/he doesn’t report a story accurately? Is that reporter’s reputation truly tarnished FOREVER if they don’t get their facts right? Or will a correction the following day or the following week make everything right again?

The media should not take the Silicon Valley approach of “Moving Fast and Breaking Things” in reporting stories; while apologizing or issuing corrections later. Sometimes it’s not even a correction which is issued. It’s just a total reversal of facts of the story which was originally reported. There needs to be more emphasis on not only getting it right, but getting it right the first time. There seems be a rush to simply getting a story out there (or producing content). And when things are rushed, accuracy and in turn “the truth” suffers. More often than not, getting “the truth” involves hearing versions of events or gathering facts from more that one source. Sourcing these facts can be a painstaking slow, tricky and difficult process. Not everyone wants to speak with reporters. And not every witness is a credible or reliable source of information.

The media has a very serious job in a democratic country. Depending on who you believe, the media shapes narratives and discussion. It influences people along with public opinion. They act as the Fourth Pillar of Democracy. 

I believe that we take the freedom of the media for granted in democratic countries. But when these freedoms of expression are stripped; and media cannot report on stories or criticize state actors, we then appreciate how important and powerful the media can be.

Which brings me back to personal injury cases and getting these stories right. I’m not sure I understand the rush in getting a personal injury story out there. Particularly when the majority of personal injury cases (rightly or wrongly) are heard by a jury made up of ordinary members of the public who are consumers of media content. To suggest that what the media puts out there with respect to these stories does not shape public opinion or can influence a potential juror is to be willfully blind to the truth. If you recall the OJ Simpson criminal trial, one of the greatest difficulties was finding jurors who had not heard about OJ’s case, or the widely publicized police chase down the California highway system.

This is not to say that media should not be reporting on these cases. But it is to critical of the media when they don’t get the story right for the sake of being first to print or grabbing a catchy headline to generate more clicks. These cases are simply too important to jeopardize.



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