Smile, You're on Television


By Richard S. Levick and Scott Sobel

When the cameras are rolling, it's usually because TV reporters smell blood. Be careful out there.

Television, while offering some opportunities for positive coverage, is unfortunately more likely to call a lawyer, or the client, when the story is unflattering, embarrassing, or scandalous.

None of us is a stranger to the broad-cast media's propensity for negative coverage ("If it bleeds, it leads"). For example, during 10 of the past 11 years, murder rates in the United States have declined, yet television coverage of murders has gone up. As a result, the general impression is that we live in a more violent society now than we did a decade ago.

If your client has some bad news they do not yet want made public, if the outcome of a conflict is still in doubt, if another party stands to gain a crucial advantage, there is a greater likelihood that reporters are interested in the story right now, long before you have tied up all the client's loose ends. When you have finally gotten the job done to your client's satisfaction, the story immediately loses any real interest for TV reporters. The conflict, the life-blood of television, is over.

But when the television reporters do call, the stakes at that moment are probably much higher than what is at risk in the courtroom.

Alas, if you want to play their game, you have to play by their rules. And those rules are guided by fundamental objectives that have less to do with journalistic integrity or fair playóregardless of the reporter's intentóthan with the simple dictates of the entertainment industry. Even programs with the word news in their title are largely about show biz.

Last month, for example, the Associated Press news wires ran a story for several days about allegations of Israeli atrocities against Palestinian civilians in Jenin. When the allegations proved to be untrue, the AP stopped reporting the story. A major television network, on the other hand, which got its story from the AP, ran the story for two more weeks before pulling it. Why? Because the TV industry is guided by the Napoleonic Code. Once a story has the appearance of authenticity, it may be necessary to prove that it is not true in order to win acquittal.


Saying "no comment" to a television reporter is a fine strategy if you wish to concede the entire broadcast to your opponent. Once television has decided something is newsworthy, simply ignoring the media will...

To continue reading