Attorneys: Handling media on high-profile cases a job in itself
By DOUG SHERWIN, The Daily Transcript
Thursday, June 13, 2013
When a high-profile case unfolds in San Diego, prosecutor Summer Stephan clears her calendar, Judge Joan Weber develops a migraine and reporter Greg Moran goes into overdrive.
Stephan, Weber and Moran — along with other members of the local bench, bar and media — discussed Wednesday how a sensational news event affects the way they do their jobs.
They all agreed that the glare of the national spotlight can be a challenge for anyone dealing with the legal profession.
“When the national media gets involved, the rules (of professional conduct) become less controlling,” said Paul Pfingst, a former San Diego County district attorney and a partner with Higgs Fletcher & Mack. “If you don’t feed them [the media], they will hunt. They will put whatever they’ve got up on the screen. Whether it’s right or wrong, it will affect your client’s case.”
The panelists spoke at a joint event sponsored by San Diego Superior Court, the San Diego County Bar Association and the Society of Professional Journalists San Diego Chapter.
Stephan, who has been a deputy in the San Diego County district attorney’s office for 23 years, said when she gets a client in a notorious case, she knows she won’t have time for anything else. One of the biggest challenges is to balance the public’s right to know with the defendant’s right to a fair trial.
While journalists sometimes can be a nuisance, Stephan said it’s not a good idea to ignore them altogether.
She likes to be prepared, and she does so by reviewing her ethical obligations as a prosecutor and the rules of professional conduct.
“I feel the media is an important part of the fabric of our society,” Stephan said, adding she works hard to be honest to the media without giving away her trial strategy.
Pfingst was less diplomatic in his assessment of the national news media.
He said they are not friendly, and claimed they don’t care who they offend while trying to get a scoop because they know they’ll leave town as soon as the story’s over.
“It’s a different level of competition,” Pfingst said.
Weber, who has been a San Diego Superior Court judge since 1994, said she tends to get a headache whenever assigned a high-profile case because of the many responsibilities associated with it.
She said preparations include working out where the cameras will be, organizing a security system, coordinating with the lawyers and protecting the jury.
She sits down with Superior Court spokeswoman Karen Dalton to discuss all the potential issues that could come up.
“I will literally be working 12-hour days,” she said.
Plaintiff’s attorney John Gomez, the founder of the law firm Gomez Iagmin, said the role of victim’s attorney in a civil case is slightly different than that of the prosecutor.
He prepares his clients and family members should they be contacted by the media, and he only goes public if it’s in their best interests.
Gomez also said he doesn’t want to do anything to damage the prosecutor’s criminal case.
Moran, who reports on legal affairs for U-T San Diego, said when a big story lands in his backyard, he wants to be the most comprehensive voice covering the case. He’ll go to every hearing, no matter how routine, and ask to see every document.
When it becomes a national story, “we’ll do more, and do it quicker and more authoritatively,” he said. “I don’t like to get beat on a story in my hometown.”
Both Moran and Steve Fiorina, a reporter for ABC’s 10News, agreed that social media has changed the way stories are reported.
Fiorina said he is expected to go to a scene and immediately start tweeting events in real time.
Moran said sites like Twitter and Facebook hold a treasure trove of information on the people involved in a big news story.
“Social media is a rich and powerful thing for us,” Moran said. “It can be a real high yield of information.”
Pfingst said he’s seen the nature of the media change during his career in public and private practice.
“The media comes because the public likes to watch,” he said. “The media will sit if the ratings stay high. It’s relatively cheap programming, and the technology allows people to stay.”
The television news media always wants to report something, so both prosecutors and defense attorneys should “play the game” if they want to avoid the wrong information being broadcast, according to Pfingst.
Certain circumstances also dictate talking to the media.
“Sometimes people have the right to know that you have the right guy,” Pfingst said, “and that their families are safe.”