MEDIA ROUNDUP: Media finding crime coverage pays

As the public remains interested in high-profile criminal trials, the media has found that prosecution and defense lawyers are warming to some coverage.

As the public remains interested in high-profile criminal trials, the media has found that prosecution and defense lawyers are warming to some coverage.

Despite the occasional debate over whether the media has become too focused on the sensational aspects of crime and high-profile criminal cases, there is no doubt that the public's appetite to know all that they can about a spectacular murder or juicy courtroom drama remains strong. From Martha Stewart and the Tyco executives to ongoing sagas involving Scott Peterson, Kobe Bryant, and Michael Jackson, the media, at least, has discovered that crime really does pay. "The OJ Simpson trial really communicated to the media, especially to cable and broadcast news executives, that you can make money and get ratings by focusing on trials and what's happening in the criminal justice system," says Mike Androvett, founder of Dallas-based Androvett Legal Media. What also has emerged in recent years is the realization that PR can play a key role in shaping perceptions about a defendant or criminal case, especially in the that period between when the first charges are filed and when the case goes to trial. "Historically it was the defense who was aggressive in using the media," says Seth Rodner, a former prosecutor and now shareholder and lawyer with the Tampa, FL-based legal firm Fowler White Boggs Banker. "Now that I'm on the defense side of things, I notice the government has gotten a lot more aggressive in the media, and that has caused a lot of white-collar criminal defense lawyers to rethink the role of media." Rodner cited examples such as prosecutors making accused white collar criminals go through a handcuffed "perp walk," issuing press releases announcing indictments, and holding press conferences to announce a plea deal. "The government is really out there trying to use the media to achieve a general deterrent message," he says. Working without press offices What is surprising, given this fairly aggressive media outreach philosophy, is that that most prosecutors' offices still don't have a formal press relations program. "With the exception of some of the huge offices, like LA, almost every office handles relations on their own," says Robert McCulloch, prosecuting attorney in St. Louis County, MO, and current president of the National District Attorneys Association. McCulloch adds most prosecutors are willing to talk to the media when a crime is first committed or when the first charges are filed. "But while the trial is going on, I have a hard and fast rule that no one in my office will talk to the media," he says. In most cases, defense lawyers are also limited in what they can say, either by court or bar-association regulations or by a specific gag order from a judge. Obviously the goal of many of these actions is to stanch the flow of information that could prejudice a jury pool. But Susan Tellem, president and CEO of Tellem Worldwide, says that while gag orders often help, they are a double-edged sword when rumors that could be quickly refuted by one side or another flourish in the media for weeks. "Once a gag order's in place you can't do any rumor squashing," says Tellem, who took some heat last year by volunteering to help the Santa Barbara District Attorney's Office in its media relations effort surrounding the Michael Jackson case. "It really ties my hands." The defense's PR efforts For the most part, PR firms are brought in by defense lawyers, not to be the public face of the defendant, but to offer behind-the-scenes advice. "Most criminal defense attorneys that I've worked with feel fairly comfortable in front of a camera or in an interaction with a print reporter," says Androvett. "But they really need help with the lay of the land, in understanding why, though they may have done a hundred similar cases, they've got 200 phone messages about this one." On the criminal defense side, there is some grumbling that the media does to tend to convict any defendant well before any trial. "To my knowledge, there is always been the perception that if you're indicted or if you've been charged or you've been arrested, then you must be guilty," says Robert Smith, who has assisted stars like R. Kelly with media relations when faced with criminal charges. "And it's up to you or your defense team to prove that you're not guilty." Pitching... crime and courts
  • Even if a defendant cannot speak to the media, there are plenty of ways to convey a positive image, including making public appearances and creating visuals that can help deflect charges.
  • Simply reminding the media of 'innocent until proven guilty' goes a long way toward keeping coverage fair until a verdict comes down.
  • Most armchair lawyering from TV legal analysts should be taken with a huge grain of salt because most legal analysts aren't privy to all the information in a case.

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