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April 30, 2011
Media Law Conference explores the modern world of journalism

Seventy-six attorneys, academics, and journalists attended the 2011 Media Law Conference held at Stetson University College of Law’s Tampa Law Center campus April 15.

Attendees were treated to panel discussions on the ethics of journalism in an age of declining objectivity in news coverage, attempts of rein in the free speech rights when it come to violent video games, and how to handle problems brought on by blogging and the hacking and publishing of leaked documents.

Kendall Coffey In the opening plenary session, “Journalists’ Ethics: Is Objectivity Dead?” William “Windy” March, senior political writer for the Tampa Tribune and self-identified as a dinosaur of the old school of journalism, said objectivity was “losing its position as the dominant force in the information flow around us.”

Not that any organization can ever be truly objective, he noted. Even the decision to do a story requires a point of view. But that said, mainstream media have tried to portray stories evenhandedly and put forward as fairly as possible competing points of view. That is changing, he said, in a media world where a major network such as the Fox News Channel has as its president a former leading Republican strategist.

March gave an historical perspective on the development of “objective journalism.” Once, most publications had a point of view, representing a church or labor perspective, for example. But publishers in the early 20th century quit going for point of view journalism in an effort to capture a wider audience. It was a marketing move. March noted that objective journalism doesn’t sit well with many readers. “They want a moral. . . . They want to know whether the good guys lost.”

Keynote speaker for the conference was Miami attorney Kendall Coffey, who talked about the subject of his book, Spinning the Law: Trying Cases in the Court of Public Opinion.

Coffey noted that no matter the press coverage of a high profile case, the result that counts is the one in court. But that said, he noted that managing how stories appear on the Internet and even hiring public relations firms can be important in winning the verdict in the court of public opinion and protecting the reputation of a client.

“People fear disgrace more than they fear most forms of cancer,” said Coffey. Recalling the case of home style maven Martha Stewart, who spent five months in prison for lying to investors about a stock sale, Coffey said she lost the battle in court but won the war in the court of public opinion by how well she has done in her varied businesses since her release.

“Many more cases will end up in the court of public opinion because of the Internet,” said Coffey. “Even a blog with 20 subscribers can end up mattering to your client if some blogger is trash talking.”

Noting that there is a correlation between bad publicity and a bad outcome in court, Coffee asked: “Will Casey Anthony . . . ever be able to get a fair trial anywhere in the universe?” Anthony, of Orlando, is accused of killing her young daughter Caylee in 2008.

Panels in the afternoon examined SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) lawsuits, Internet activism, blogging, and anonymous posts.

Neil Brown, editor and vice president of the St. Petersburg Times, closed out the conference.

Brown talked about the paper’s popular fact-checking project Politifact, which examines statements made by government officials and politicians for truth and accuracy.

“With Politifact, we’re acting as judge and jury,” said Brown. “Rarely is a statement true or false. It’s usually half-true, mostly true or so severe that it’s ‘Pants on Fire’ false.”

The conference is organized by The Florida Bar’s Media and Communication Law Committee. Conference chair was Catherine A. Van Horn.

[Revised: 09-18-2014]