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NY Times Retro Report: Scalded by Coffee, then News Media

by on October 27, 2013

Have you ever heard the story about the woman who sued McDonald’s for $1 million dollars for spilling hot coffee on herself? Better yet, have you ever used her as a punchline?

On October 21, The New York Times featured a Retro Report looking at the now infamous story of a woman who sued because her coffee was too hot. The reason why this story is worth talking about years later is because it is the epitome of how badly someone can get hurt when the media gets it wrong. Watch the video above to see what I mean.

Because news media chose to make a mockery of this woman’s experience and lawsuit, the facts of the story were lost and the media narrative became the new truth. Now, almost everyone in America is familiar with the ‘ridiculous’ version of this story, and almost no one with what really happened. Looking at the different ways journalists failed to practice ethical decision making, particularly in reporting the facts and resisting the urge to simplify what happened, is a valuable lesson. If used correctly, it can serve as an important reminder so that something like this doesn’t have to happen to an earnest victim ever again.

If you’re interested in reading more about reader reactions to this Retro Report, click here.


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  1. Kayla permalink

    I recently watched a movie for a class at UMass called “Hot Coffee” on this story. I found it shocking on that when the media gets it wrong, how public perception can be irreversibly skewed. What is troubling is that from this incorrectly presented story, lawsuits are viewed as frivolous and greedy. We are blaming the victims and not holding the others accountable. This gives companies and organizations (government included) less liability for the problems that they create. We need to have a better media that gets these stories right the first time, not later on. Even with apologies and acknowledgments of wrongdoing, the damage can already be done. The media has such an enormous power in our culture and can convince people of anything. Journalists and corporations are the gatekeepers who need to work together, with government, to ensure that fact checking is done. Its when corporate interest and money gets involved when the issues present themselves


  2. arazsunshine permalink

    Sometimes I’m surprised by people’s ability to just grab onto a facet of a story and believe that to be the truth without seeing what is actually behind the surface details. This lady’s ordeal was made so much worse by people making light of a situation that was in fact, not simply spilling coffee on herself. It’s very frustrating when people refuse to believe or find the truth of a situation.
    That other journalists were sloppy with their post-lawsuit stories and summaries is shocking. This only continued the publics confusion and sensationalized coverage about the problem, which was that McDonald’s coffee was being sold at exceptionally hot temperatures, and that the problem had been reported by others, not just the lady who was in the spot light.
    This happens in many stories. The media has the power to skew the public’s perception of a story mainly because they are the premier source of the story. How you hear it for the first time, or what details are continuously emphasized will form an opinion that can be unfavorable and wrong.

  3. This story reminds me of what recently happened with the North Andover student, Erin Cox. The media grabbed onto a story that shammed the school administration because it was more attention grabbing for readers. The claim was the Cox was suspended simply for giving a drunk friend a ride from a party. There was a great deal of backlash with people outraged that she should be punished for doing a good deed and many news outlets recycled the story without checking the facts. After the story had circulated, follow-up reporting finally revealed that the account of events wasn’t even true. The media simply loved the drama of such a story and didn’t take care to report the facts. Details revealed that Cox wasn’t as innocent as she made it seem.

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