Trial by media - a helping hand or a "helping hand" in disputes?

Oct 15 • Ilona Nurmela • Comments: 0

Let’s talk about escalating disputes with the help of journalists aka trial by media.

To start off, I completely understand the need to relay newsworthy items to the public at large so they would a. Know about it; b. Be able to make better decisions based on better information and c. Learn from others’ experience, whatever the lesson. Sometimes investigative journalism uncovers stories that we are all better for knowing as they then get resolved and not swept under the carpet.

Sometimes, however, stories are presented in a way that does not tell the entire truth - arguably, how can anyone but the participants know the full truth? (In case of mediations, I regret to report that sometimes the participants think they both know the truth, but they know only a version of it as without telepathy it’s quite impossible to see into the head of another and if we don’t ask questions and don’t communicate, then we end up making assumptions about each other’s behaviour that might not be the truth either.) The news story can also tell just one part/side of the truth or even if both sides of the story are relayed, then it is sometimes done in a way that escalates the situation even further. Let’s take disputes. For camera-shy people and for those that value their good reputation, being in the media is ill advised. Still, it doesn’t mean that if such a person is in the middle of a very public dispute, s/he will cave just to avoid publicity. On the contrary, an insufficient (note: I did not say biased) coverage of the dispute might cause such a person to dig his/her heels in even further, since the assault on his/her good reputation is now equivalent to adding insult to injury.
Why should this bother me, you might ask. Simply put, it sometimes interferes with my work. (Oh, don't worry, it makes me more creative and more mindful in approaching the parties, so I am grateful.) Trial by media tends to escalate disputes, which means it then gets increasingly difficult to resolve them amicably. Moreover, increased attention means a lot more “helpers” than necessary come out to feed and when a company is already faced with “an enemy” and has engaged lawyers, then multiple kind offers of help are eventually seen as meddling. Add the low awareness of the opportunities that mediation brings - helping parties forge their OWN solution without anyone telling them how they should behave. As a result, sometimes mediators are dismissed as yet another piranha, rather than someone neutral who really can help both parties reach a solution they can both live with through a process they themselves control.

I am not directly blaming the media for disputants digging their heels in and sticking with courts. Negative publicity may cause parties to come together and craft a joint solution, provided the comments of one party in the press have not been too personal. However, juicy quotes is something that the media thrives on. So, the odds of parties “hating” each other publicly on the pages of newspapers is high and, consequently and in reverse proportion, the odds of such parties to later want to be in the same room to talk it out are more slim than if the dispute were not publicly escalated. The worrying bit is that trial by media has increased in the last few years - AS Tallinna Vesi’s dispute with the regulator, BLRT’s private dispute amongst its shareholders that became very public for a while, Ragn-Sells disagreement with the state over EU funding that was aired on prime time on national tv a few weeks ago and now another private dispute between tech start up shareholders ( - to name just a familiar few.

I find puff pieces as well as assaults on someone’s character (or exposes, if to use a nice modern word) equally distasteful simply because it’s someone’s judgement or opinion which brings to mind only one question: what positive thing is the person trying to achieve? If the trial by media has been started by one of the parties with the help of a friendly journalist, this is usually a coercion tactic to get the public opinion on their side and help the other side see the light and settle. The “Get our story out first” rule - mold the public opinion by stating your side of the story first. If the story has been sprung by an investigative journalist him/herself, then the positive intent is to sell as many papers as possible, and usually not by the desire to actually help parties resolve their dispute. A controversy is a story that can fill many pages and have many sequels, an endless source of coverage and the longer running, the better to milk it. In effect, the media becomes an interested stakeholder in the dispute, yet another one that parties need to reckon with when they attempt to resolve it. Again, why am I bothered? Because in mediations where the media has been involved parties need to agree how to present any resolution they achieve to the public - as the win of one party, or a win-win of both with a joint statement. So, yet another issue to take time to iron out.

Trials by media - they might help parties to settle, but the likelihood is greater that as a stakeholder media attention tends to escalate and can hinder amicable out-of-court resolutions. So, parties might want to think twice before leaking anything themselves or when not vetting their quotes with journalists. A question to the disputants: do you really think this will help you solve anything or are you doing this to retaliate and piss off the other party? Yes, messaging is everything and it’s an art constructing the right messages in positive wording so that those open-minded to amicable solutions would be encouraged to seek them. Sometimes, a “No comment” is actually a very good comment that allows room for…well…every possibility, even a solution, especially if one is already in the making. Then - stories without quotes are even more someone’s opinion that doesn’t know the full truth, while parties are both better off not having insulted each other in black and white and very much in public.

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