The research team investigates the effect of news coverage on decisions of public interest organizations. This project draws on data from newspaper archives and from a survey of public interest organizations to document the effect of news coverage on their structure, strategies and implementation. Unlike prior single-organization studies, this study uses rare, representative data from organizations across the ideological spectrum. These exceptional data allow the investigator to test whether theories based on single-issue samples generalize to other organizations, and to use powerful statistical analysis to identify the different mechanisms for the effects.

Project Report

In October 2010, a volunteer lawyer for Pine Tree Legal Services noticed that the foreclosure file of one of his clients did not look right. He learned that the bank employee who signed off on her foreclosure prepared 400 foreclosures a day, and, contrary to his sworn statements, had not reviewed any of them. The flurry of news coverage about this discovery, including a front page story in the New York Times, drew public outrage about what was soon dubbed the robo-signing scandal. As a result, thousands of potentially improper foreclosures were halted, and state attorneys general brought class actions against mortgage holders for using false affidavits in these proceedings. Public interest legal organizations seek media coverage to put issues like these on the policy agenda and to engage the public about important problems. As the Pine Tree Legal Services example shows, media attention can be a powerful factor in bringing about change. Legal organizations can attract media attention through lawsuits, but they also use other strategies such as organizing protests, educating the public, and talking with public officials. This project asks: Which organizational strategies and characteristics are most likely to generate media coverage? What are the conditions under which organizations like these can get their activities and concerns into the news? What does this tell us about the process through which access to justice issues come to light? This project is the first to study organizational strategies and media coverage based on a national random sample of public interest organizations in the United States. It also is the first to look at both litigation and non-litigation strategies of public interest organizations to find out which strategies generate the most media coverage. Public interest legal organizations multiplied rapidly since their initial growth in the 1960s and 1970s. These organizations now work in many areas, including poverty, civil rights, environmental protection, and consumer advocacy. They range in size from a few employees to relatively large-scale operations, and they engage in many different strategies for change, often simultaneously. Given this variation, this project sought to identify the conditions under which organizations like these gain media coverage of their efforts. To that end, this project systematically collected and coded more than 30,000 news stories about a representative sample of 221 public interest legal organizations, and then combined these data with other information collected through a survey of these organizations. Poverty oriented organizations were the largest group of public interest law organizations in this study, yet they received the smallest proportion of the media coverage of the organizations in our sample. Why were there so few stories about the efforts and concerns of the largest group of organizations? One explanation suggested by our research is that poverty organizations typically do direct client representation, which does not attract much coverage. In contrast, public advocacy, grass roots mobilization, and impact litigation are more likely than direct service cases to generate media attention. A second explanation is that poverty organizations tended to be relatively small and local operations, but national organizations with many members and professional media staff receive the most media attention. These structural factors help explain why the most numerous organizations representing the most economically disadvantaged clients received the least amount of media attention to their work. These findings provide important insights about which public interest legal organizations, and issues, appear in news coverage, and which do not. To the extent that policy makers rely on the media to identify issues related to access to justice, these findings suggest they may want to consider additional sources as well, particularly around poverty issues. And more questions remain. What other characteristics of organizations, their clients, or their strategies relate to media coverage? Which way does causation run in these relationships: do organizations attract media coverage because they are larger, or do organizations grow larger because they attract media coverage? When the media write about these organizations, what narratives or stories do they emphasize? These issues are but a subset of the important questions this study will address.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Susan Sterett
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University of California Berkeley
United States
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