Bad Writing, Bad Editing, Bad Grasp of Law: An Example of Awful Legal Coverage
As you know, I gripe about many things. It's the life of a blogger.
One of my most constant gripes is that the media does a terrible job of covering legal issues. Far too many journalists do not understand the burden of proof, do not understand sentencing, and do not understand famous but complex laws like the PATRIOT ACT. What's worse, they don't care that they don't understand those things and don't take reasonable steps to educate themselves.
Too many journalists think their readers are too stupid to grasp accurate stories about the legal system, choose sensationalistic pap that distorts stories, gleefully accept rights-depriving and system-distorting leaks to scoop competitors without recognition that the government's willingness to leak is a part of the story, and generally act as lapdogs to law enforcement and the security state.
I've grown so jaded about it that it takes a really horrifically botched job of journalism to really move me.
Congrats, CBS2 New York. You've made it.
CBS's New York affiliate reported on a workplace discrimination verdict in a case featuring claims that the defendant made free use of ugly epithets. The plaintiff said the use of the epithets created a hostile work environment; the defendant said the epithets had to be viewed differently in different cultural contexts and were not meant to harass. The jury found for the plaintiff. Here's how CBS interpreted that:
NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — A federal jury has rejected an argument that the use of the N-word among blacks can be a culturally acceptable term of love and endearment, ruling instead that its use in the workplace is hostile and discriminatory no matter what.
[Emphasis mine, idiocy in original.]
No. No, no, no, no.
Good Lord. Who wrote that? Who edited it?
A jury can't rule on what the law is. A jury can't rule that a word is "hostile and discriminatory no matter what." A jury can only return a verdict on the application of the law it is given to a specific set of facts. At the very most, this verdict means that this jury found, by only a preponderance of the evidence, that the evidence presented to it showed that the defendant employer created an unlawfully hostile work environment for the plaintiff worker in violation of anti-discrimination law. The jury didn't, and couldn't, say whether other facts of other uses of racial epithets would create a hostile work environment. The jury didn't, and couldn't, make law for the country. The jury verdict can't be cited for any legal proposition.
Perhaps you'll say that the bad reporting here was just in the lede, not in the heart of the story. But the lede is all that many people read. The lede gets picked up as the hook for the story. The lede gets repeated and cited and argued by people talking about the news. An ignorant lede promotes ignorance. This is an ignorant lede.
There are certainly very complex areas of the law, and the job of a lawyer can be very challenging. But the basic mechanics of the legal system aren't rocket science, and a high-school grasp of the way the legal system works should not be an insurmountable barrier to journalists or their editors.
[If commenters could spare me the deeply annoying why-can't-I-say-that-word-when-rappers-say-it discussion, which is tangential to this post, that would be great.]
A federal jury in New York found that use of the N-word in the workplace is never acceptable, even when used between black coworkers and when the historically fraught word is intended to denote friendship or endearment.
JURIES CAN'T DO THAT. THIS JURY DIDN'T DO THAT.
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