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Grant Fuels Study on Public Interest Law Firms' Media Appeal

Professor Catherine Albiston Photo

By Andrew Cohen

The more Professor Catherine Albiston ’93 researched the idea, the clearer it became: media coverage of public interest law organizations matters for social change. A new grant from the National Science Foundation will allow Albiston to study the factors that increase coverage of public interest law firms’ cases and causes.

Albiston is examining how more than 200 public interest law firms’ organizational structures, strategies for change, and ideological bents relate to the amount and scope of their media coverage.

“As the Supreme Court recognized during the civil rights movement, public interest representation is a form of constitutionally-protected free expression,” said Albiston, who joined Berkeley Law’s faculty in 2003 and teaches mainly in its Jurisprudence and Social Policy program. “Public interest litigation allows social movements to publicize injustices that might otherwise go unnoticed. Media coverage of these cases helps draw resources and new participants to a social movement.”

An employment law expert, Albiston was a public interest lawyer before she received her Ph.D. and began teaching. She has long been interested in the structural positioning of public interest law organizations and the unique challenges of practicing law from within them.

Given the uncertain economy and the challenges advocacy groups face in representing their growing client base, knowing how certain activities produce media coverage can be an invaluable strategic advantage.

“A diverse range of social change activity is not being covered,” Albiston said. Although the media tend to cover older, more established organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the NAACP Inc. Fund, “those stories don’t necessarily represent all of what’s happening on the ground.”

Counterintuitive Theories

Albiston notes that the benefits of media coverage depend on a group’s size, scope and objectives. While a New York Times article may be hugely beneficial to a large national organization, a smaller regional group may be better served by a piece in its local paper because more people with a stake in the outcome will read it.

Does media coverage encourage radicalism by giving publicity to these organizations? In fact, the opposite may be true. As legal advocacy firms mature, grow, and become more established, they both develop stronger media connections and become more conservative in their strategies and agendas. “The objective can become maintaining or strengthening the organization rather than furthering its cause,” Albiston said.

An aim of Albiston’s study is to help resolve a current debate among social scientists. One theory is that the media tends to cover large organizations that have existed for decades and, as a result, more radical organizations receive less coverage. The counter-theory holds that because radical agendas make good copy, a disproportionate number of extreme groups and positions get covered. The Occupy protests are a case in point; the street actions have captured national media attention. The ACLU now represents Occupy Boston as it tries to hold city land.

Albiston’s study compares firms that focus only on legal strategies to those that also engage in provocative collective protests. Albiston considers how firms use legal tactics, as well.

“Some public interest firms litigate all the way through to the U.S. Supreme Court, while others parachute in to file amicus briefs only after a case reaches the Court,” Albiston said. “If the media treats those actions equally, it provides an incentive to save money and simply swoop in to submit amicus briefs, but not to do the hard work of representing clients.”

Discovering the media’s inherent biases can help influence what these organizations do and how they convey their message. Albiston hopes her research “encourages public interest law firms to be more strategic in their case work and media outreach” while prodding journalists to “investigate important but less-covered issues.”