Dealing With the News Media – Lessons Learned From Representing Mike Nifong

Representing then-Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong on state ethics charges taught two Winston-Salem law partners a few lessons about dealing with the news media.

Among the lessons that attorneys David B. Freedman and Dudley A. Witt shared with students in the Wake Forest School of Law Litigation Clinic on Wednesday:

  • Particularly when you are talking before television cameras, condense your most important talking points to 10 to 15 seconds. “Anything more than that, they’re going to edit out,” Freedman said. Reporters might not be satisfied with your chosen message, Freedman said. But if you incorporate it into every response no matter the question, your message will get out. In Nifong’s case, the core message was that Nifong was a career prosecutor with an unblemished record and a solid reputation in his community.
  • Where media interest is truly intense, do not delude yourself that you can simply ignore reporters. Particularly where the client is unpopular, the attorney may be the only source for any positive comments in the news coverage.
  • Talking to reporters off-the-record can pay dividends. All of the journalists with whom the attorneys spoke off-the-record kept their promise of confidentiality. It gave the attorneys a chance to educate reporters about the legal process, and to influence the way articles were written.
  • Understand that all reporters are not the same. “You should learn who to trust,” Witt said. For instance, after Witt made some important filings in the case, his first interviews were with two journalists he trusted to accurately report the contents of the lengthy and complex documents.

Nifong was disbarred in June after a State Bar disciplinary committee found him guilty of ethics violations in the investigation and prosecution of Duke lacrosse players. State prosecutors ultimately concluded the players were falsely accused of raping a stripper.

Witt earned his undergraduate degree and his law degree from Wake Forest, while Freedman earned his undergraduate and law degrees at the University of North Carolina. The two are partners at the Winston-Salem law firm of Crumpler Freedman Parker & Witt.

The attorneys differ in their views of the news media. Witt describes himself as “old school,” and said that the deliberative nature of the legal process does not fit the hurry-up nature of today’s news cycle. “Let the process work itself out,” he said when asked if there was anything he wished the media would do differently.

By contrast, Freedman enjoys interacting the media, so much so that Witt joked, “I still have wounds in my side” from Freedman elbowing him out of the way to get to a camera.

Freedman said an attorney who interacts with the media must avoid the urge to self-aggrandize and instead keep focused on the client’s interests. “If you do it right, and you do it professionally, people will respect you,” he said.