Lawyers and reporters: On the record

Lawyers and reporters have a lot in common.


I realized this working at Court TV in the early 2000s. Back then, everyone who worked on-air was required to have a law degree and most who worked behind-the-scenes did too (except for me 👋).


I found so many people either moved to journalism after practicing law or went on to get a law degree after working in journalism. Although these professions have stark differences like post-secondary degrees, licenses to practice and (much to my chagrin) salary, they have an overlying commonality which is a love of words.


Lawyers are good writers. Lawyers are excellent communicators. Lawyers operate on a code of strict ethics. Now I know some might argue that journalists don't possess these same skills, but the good ones do.


I never was interested in law school when I was actually in school, but after a few years of working at Court TV, I was fascinated. It was thrilling to watch how they could weave words and arguments together to make their case. Plus, the only math classes I was ever any good at was logic and statistics, so I naturally toyed with the idea of becoming a lawyer. Luckily, more sane minds prevailed, and I stuck with my journalism career.


So, when I was asked to be a guest on the Lawyer Minds podcast with my good friend Tad Thomas, it was like my two favorite worlds collided.


Because of my fascination with the law and court system, when I was a general assignment reporter I often volunteered to cover the court cases that most other reporters found boring. So I've worked with a lot of lawyers, judges and other people involved with legal proceedings.


Lawyers have no problem talking to judges and juries, so why do they often freeze up when they have to talk to a reporter?

The easy answer is because they know every. word. matters. Because they are trained to weave words in their favor, they know exactly how words can be taken out of context or used against them if they aren't carefully crafted.


Another answer is because most everyone dislikes hearing from a reporter unsolicited. (Another thing we have in common with lawyers!)


But here's the thing.

When reporters and lawyers work together, they can reach a common goal.

Most of the time, that goal is telling a story that needs to be told.


Here's the full podcast from Lawyer Minds, but it got me thinking about a lot of other related topics I thought I might expand on.




  • What makes a good story?

When a lawyer presents a case, he or she has to find the story to tell. That means identifying compelling characters, making a clear and concise timeline and presenting something that is relatable to others. This is exactly what makes a great story for a journalist. Add in something that is timely and you've got a lead story on the 5pm news.


  • Pitching 101

So when an attorney has a case with a story they want to tell, how do they pitch it? There are a few avenues but the best one, by far, is to develop a relationship with a few journalists you like and trust. To do this, get in touch! Stop the ones you see regularly covering courtrooms; reach out via email or call them up (our contact information is posted all over our station/newspaper's website), ask them for coffee, find out what kind of stories they cover, what their daily deadlines are like, etc. When you start developing a contact relationship, you can help them navigate the legal mumbo-jumbo they see on a daily basis and you can get the stories you want covered in the news.


  • No Comment!

While there are many times a journalist can be your friend, there are many other times you will be asked about cases you don't want to talk about. This brings me to my number one cardinal rule of talking to reporters:


NO NO COMMENT.

No, that's not a typo. NEVER say "no comment."


You can very easily give them 'no comment' on a particular case without saying those two cringe-worthy words. No comment is like pleading the 5th. It implies you are hiding something even though it might not mean that at all.


We know there are often times you simply cannot comment on a case for various reasons. However, this is when you use some of that crafty language you learned in law school.


Flip the script. If you are a reporter and you interview one side of a story and get a fantastic perspective and then you go to the other side and get "no comment," what side of the story will get the better coverage in a 1 minute and 30 second package for television? Your "no comment" in the hallway will either make you look bad or be cut entirely because it adds nothing to the story.


Instead, "This case is very complex and there are some things I simply can't talk about for privacy reasons, but what I can tell you is ...."

As a lawyer you know you can say a lot of words without really saying anything at all.

That's not a dig on lawyers. That's a learned skill.


  • Keep it simple, stupid

So while you can use that impressive skill when you don't want to comment on a case and still make an impression in the story, avoid it when you are talking to a reporter for something you do want covered.


Keep it simple and concise. We've only got 1:30 to tell the whole story. So while you can talk at length about cases or trials you are passionate about, practice talking in clear sound-bytes for the purpose of stories in the media.


Which brings me to a question I hear a lot about talking "on background" or "off the record."


  • Off the record

This is where those media member relationships come into play. Giving information 'on background' or 'off the record' can help you in more ways than one. When you have a relationship with a reporter, you have the immense advantage of giving them a heads up on cases coming up you want covered.


As you well know, the context of a story matters. So even when you can't allow certain details to be reported in the media, telling them to a reporter 'on background' helps the reporter understand perspective and report more fairly. When you have a reporter you can trust, this becomes easier as your relationship develops.


While they might not be able to report on it at the time, just knowing the background of a case coming up or going to trial is so important because of my next point: timing is everything.


  • Timing is everything

Dayshift (which means court-covering) reporters are often given story assignments around 10am, which means they are expected to become an expert on their given story topic, report it in a clear and concise matter by around 3pm, when deadlines start to crunch for evening news stories to be edited for air.


Which means when we walk into court, find a case worth reporting, interview the involved parties, we are usually in a huge time crunch. If you can give a reporter a heads up in advance that something important is happening in a case, you not only have a better chance of having it covered, you have a better chance of it being covered well.


So the bottom line is reporters can be your friends!

Like so many humans, we have more in common than we have differences.


For more information on navigating the media or how to get your message out in the world, contact me at kelsey@kelseystarks.com or check out my training options at www.kelseystarks.com.



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