LAWSUIT FRENZY….In the academic world, “publication bias” is the widely acknowledged tendency to publish results that have strong findings while ignoring results that are negative or neutral. It’s pretty easy to see the problem this creates: if a dozen researchers do a dozen studies, and two of them produce strong results while the others fail to produce anything interesting, only the first two get published. After all, why bother publishing something if the research didn’t pan out? The result is that readers think something new has been discovered (two good studies confirm it!), while in reality ten out of twelve studies were null.

Guess what? Myron Levin reports in the LA Times today that newspapers have the same problem:

When a jury sticks it to a huge corporation, it’s always big news. A crushing verdict of $4.9 billion against General Motors Corp. in Los Angeles drew massive media coverage, as did a $5-billion award in the Exxon Valdez oil spill case and a $144.8-billion thrashing of the tobacco industry in a Florida class action.

….[But] after the big headlines, critics say, the media often drop the ball, losing interest in what happens later. Published studies of news content and a Times examination of major recent cases show that when the immense verdicts were overturned or dramatically reduced, the news frequently was banished to the inside pages or simply not reported.

Coverage is far more likely if plaintiffs win than if they lose, and far more likely if awards are large than if they’re small. This is no surprise, really, but Levin also reviewed some high profile cases and found that when big awards are reduced or overturned ? as they usually are ? newspapers that put the original story on the front page typically bury the followup.

So are lawsuits out of control? No. Over the past decade, the number of filings is down and the average award size is down. But thanks to publication bias, you’d never know it from reading your daily paper or watching the evening news.

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