The Internet Outrage Machine engaged its latest target last week: Jennifer Connell, the vile, evil aunt who sued her eight-year-old nephew because he jumped on her and caused her to fall and break her wrist.
Except that’s not quite what happened.
She sued the family because the family’s insurance policy only offered her $1 in compensation for her broken wrist. That’s hardly enough to cover the multiple surgeries she’s had to try and fix the injury. So the suit wasn’t really about not being able to hold a plate of hors d’oeuvres. It was about quality of life.
Eric Turkewitz is a New York attorney who blogs about various legal issues. As he points out, Connecticut state law requires that the family be named in the suit, not the insurer. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, but I’m not an attorney.
But it makes for great ammunition for internet outrage, doesn’t it?
Daniel Tepfer (or his editor perhaps?) left that bit about why the family was named out of all of the stories he wrote about the case. And once you’ve done that, the headlines practically write themselves. “Worst Aunt Ever” was one of the kinder versions. Turkewitz links to some pretty horrific tweets about the case as well.
When writing about a case like this, what responsibilities does the reporter have?
Aren’t they supposed to be fair, objective and impartial?
Was Tepfer fair, objective and impartial in his characterization of the lawsuit? I suspect, based on the language, he simply quoted portions of the lawsuit without contacting any attorney for some lessons on Connecticut law. I doubt he contacted the family for much information either. There’s no indication from the initial article that he did.
That comes across as lazy reporting. How much effort would it have taken to make a couple of phone calls and learn more about the case before writing a story that’s practically guaranteed to go viral? I’m willing to be that the Connecticut Post has at least one attorney on staff or retainer, and if they don’t, then I’m reasonably sure Hearst Media Services Connecticut does. And if Tepfer can’t perform a Google search for “Connecticut personal injury lawyers,” his research skills are lacking.
Now that the trial is over, many news outlets are somehow finding the time to seek out Connell and actually talk to the people involved. But why the rush to get the story out first, before they actually researched the whole thing?
I’ve been accused of being idealistic or naïve about a lot of things, even as I get way to close to 50. But I’ve always thought that the job of journalists was to inform, not just entertain. I realize in the Internet Age, each story is competing for an ever-shrinking amount eyeball time. But at the same time, journalists and writers need to be aware of how easy it is for a story to go out of control. We may not bear legal responsibility when that happens, but we certainly bear a moral responsibility.