Sunday, April 03, 2005

Plain-Language Blogging on Schiavo Case

Lawyer's plain-language blogging on Schiavo case a refuge for many
By Staci D. Kramer
Throughout the Schiavo media frenzy, lawyer Matt Conigliaro's blog stayed on mission -- offering the straight scoop on Florida appellate law. He spoke with OJR about the media, bias and "citizen" journalism.

“A reporting lifetime ago, I was part of the often intense coverage of the similar Nancy Cruzan and Christine Busalacchi cases in Missouri. But they played out on a different media stage than the Schiavo case with its wall-to-wall cable coverage and relentless attention online. News organizations were still the primary gatekeepers -- and if people wanted to get their message out, it went through us or usually went unheard.

Today, it's the opposite -- anyone who has something to say has access to a digital printing press and a shot at being read. True, the noise-to-quality ratio is high, and the amount of misinformation masquerading as fact can be scary. But the opening in the gates also makes way for those with something significant to add.

Take Florida law blog AbstractAppeal, where appellate lawyer Matt Conigliaro combines passion for the law and a talent for explaining points like hearsay or case law for feeding tubes. Once it turned up on my radar, it quickly became invaluable, an oasis in the frenzied coverage and polarizing posts; as soon as a ruling came in or a new legal issue was raised, I clicked right in. I spend more time with his resource page than those at news sites.

When Conigliaro started Abstract Appeal, billed as "the first Web log devoted to Florida Law & The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals," in 2003, he thought he'd be writing primarily for other Florida lawyers. But Conigliaro wound up in the eye of a category five legal hurricane -- the battle over Terri Schiavo. The combination turned him outward, to a lawyer explaining the law in language it doesn't take a law degree to understand.

While other bloggers following the case tend to side either with husband Michael Schiavo or parents Robert and Mary Schindler, Conigliaro stuck with his initial focus -- Florida and appellate law -- and, in the process, created a port in the storm for those seeking a coherent, comprehensive understanding of the legal issues without a bias toward either family. Conigliaro's primary bias, freely admitted, is toward the law.

I have learned how much the public at large does not know about the legal system, even some of the most basic principles are fairly foreign to a lot of the public, and one of them is the notion of finality, that cases come to an end, that when a trial is held, an appeal is concluded, there are very few ways to try to undo that judgment and start over.

Online Journalism Review: You have devoted an enormous amount of personal resources to doing this. Why are you so compelled to do it and what kind of role do you think you're playing?

Matt Conigliaro: It’s, I guess, a fairly easy answer. I started this weblog regarding Florida law. I'm an appellate attorney, so that's what I do, follow case law for a living so it does merge pretty well with what I do for a living. When this case started to become news I had done relatively few postings on it, other than to just sort of comment on what was going on but didn’t really try to be very insightful. What made me try to be more detailed -- I ended up creating that information page; I literally did it overnight -- I was in the middle of a trial … and I happened to catch a radio show as I was traveling from spot to spot that had the host just screaming about what the case was about, and I knew much of what the host was saying just wasn't true. I knew from reading the appellate proceedings in the case that's not what happened. I was somewhat fed up, and I ended up going home that night, didn't sleep and stayed up all night to write that page.

It was really done as a way of trying to give people that were curious some basic explanation of the procedures, because as I first heard it, "Well the husband wants her dead so the Florida courts have just listened to him." That's not what happened at all. "She's not really in a vegetative state; she's talking and walking and thinking and communicating." The court decisions were exactly to the contrary. There had been a whole trial on what she wanted. The decision was not made by the husband; it was made by the court based on what everybody said about her, her life, her wishes. The representations about it being a decision by the husband were just wrong, and they were inflammatory, too. The statements about her not being in a vegetative state, well, you can still debate that and apparently people still are -- there had been a whole trial on the issue. The court had heard from experts on both sides, heard from an independent court-appointed expert and reached a decision. My original goal was just to get that kind of information out there so that if people were curious there'd be somewhere to go. Also, as I started to get e-mails on it I could refer people to the page.

OJR: You started out by doing little posts that would say so-and-so had a column, so-and-so has a story, and then you had this shift and you started to become the explainer.

MC: Because nobody else was. At some point it didn't do much good to just keep referring people to articles because stories didn’t do a good job of explaining what's going on. And stories are written by reporters, who generally aren't lawyers. It's no slight against them; they get their information by usually talking to lawyers, people involved in the case, people who often make for good quotes and certainly give you their client's spin on whatever's going on, but it doesn't necessarily make for an objective look at what's happened.

MC: It's very troubling to people because they end up being very misled. And if a reporter makes a mistake, then everybody who reads the story or hears the report gets misled. What eventually happened is I started to appreciate just how much misinformation was out there and how much people had questions that media never answered. I started trying to answer.

OJR: Was this the responsibility of local media? Did they miss out on this?

MC: To a great extent, yes, I think so. Although far more, I think it was both a missed opportunity and a bit of a train wreck for the national media because the local media has had this case around for 7 years; at least since 2002, this has been a big deal in Central Florida. Everybody has heard about this case here for years. The local media pretty much figured out the basics of what was going on years ago, and they were being fairly reliable in their reporting in the sense they didn't get things wrong very often. Sometimes -- but not very often. What they didn't do was give much insight into what was happening and what the law was. The stories mostly consisted of some quotes by one side and some quotes by the other side, which leaves the average person clueless about what the law is.

It's understandable a reporter who's not trained in legal matters might not want to be writing stories that firmly declare what the law is, they'd rather quote a professor who says something. They just don’t feel they have the ability or the standing to be declaring what the law is -- and maybe that's appropriate. On the local level, it left a pretty big hole in the coverage. On the national level … I used the term train wreck and I mean it. The misinformation from the national media right through today is still appalling.

OJR: What kinds of perceptions of yours have changed – or have any -- about the way the public approaches information and news?

MC: I'm not sure anything has changed. I think I've learned a lot, though.

OJR: What have you learned?

MC: I've learned that there is just a broad cross-section of people out there who have different levels of interest in the law. I have been pleasantly amazed at the number of people who have contacted me who are genuinely interested in learning what the law says on these different issues and understanding why it says that and how it works. At the same time, there are people who have also contacted me that don’t care at all about the law, don't want to know what it says, don't want to understand it; instead, they simply want to blame people for results – like the judge.

This case cut almost no new legal ground in Florida law. To a lot of people this was new and that this could happen was news to them, but, in terms of the law, if you look at the decisions in this case, there's almost nothing new that's come out of it. The basic framework of what happened here was already the law. A lot of folks out there don’t want to hear that, they don't want to know the judge followed the law … they just want to blame the judge and say he’s corrupt, power hungry and other derogatory terms they want to throw at him.

MC: Generally. I've been unfortunately disappointed. I think there are a lot of well-meaning reporters out there and well-meaning hosts who just don’t have the time to learn what's involved in a case like this or the law that surrounds a case like this. Maybe the people who prepare them are just doing a poor job but, in the end, the country has heard very loudly from a number of people who just didn't know the facts of the case, who just didn’t know the law when they talked about it. They talked about things being true, being factual, that were just incorrect.

MC: I think it would be great if others contributed this way, I think it's inevitable too, maybe not as common as you’d like to see it. … If there was another Schiavo case next month I think I'd collapse. I'm personally lucky that I don’t have kids and work three blocks from where I live.

If more people would do it would be good. The danger that I have seen come from this -- I have learned how much the public at large does not know about the legal system, even some of the most basic principles are fairly foreign to a lot of the public, and one of them is the notion of finality, that cases come to an end, that when a trial is held, an appeal is concluded, there are very few ways to try to undo that judgment and start over. The other thing is not so much a principle as an observation -- it's almost impossible to judge a trial that you weren't there to see, whether it’s a jury or a judge making the final decision, they make those findings based on body language, tone of voice, all sorts of strange things that you’ll get when you’re there that you’ll never see later.

con·cept: Plain-Language Blogging on Schiavo Case