How Nonfiction Accounts Are Analyzed

Instructor: Joe Ricker
Stella Liebeck was made famous by her lawsuit against McDonald's in the early 1990s, but the initial media coverage of her story lacked the appropriate analysis to uncover details that would have elicited a different reaction among the population.

A Frivolous Lawsuit

In the early 1990s, a woman named Stella Liebeck became famous in national news for her lawsuit against McDonald's. Liebeck spilled hot coffee on herself, and a jury decided that McDonald's was responsible for punitive damages, along with compensation to cover medical expenses and lost pay for missing work. The media and many people who saw the story on the news were appalled that someone could spill coffee on themselves and then blame someone else. Essentially, most people believed that Liebeck clumsily spilled the coffee on herself while she was driving because the media failed to report all of the facts and details. When the facts finally began to emerge, however, the attitude toward her lawsuit changed.

Stella Liebeck was, in fact, in a car when she spilled coffee on herself, but she was not driving and the car was parked. This adds little to clarify why a jury would award her $3 million in punitive damages. The fact that is substantial is that Liebeck suffered third-degree burns from that coffee, which are the most severe. Most people have spilled something hot on themselves at one point or another, but rarely has coffee caused such horrible injury. Despite hundreds of complaints and more than 700 other injuries because of their coffee, McDonald's had implemented a policy to serve their coffee between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit, which caused the severe burns to Liebeck in a matter of seconds. McDonald's admitted that coffee of this temperature couldn't even be consumed or it would result in severe burns.

This example serves as a way for readers to interpret and analyze nonfiction. Just because facts and details may be omitted doesn't mean that the information presented is untrue, but a lack of facts and details changes the way that information is interpreted. In most nonfiction, three basic things need to be considered before drawing a conclusion:

  • Purpose
  • Audience
  • Content


Purpose is the reason information is being presented. It answers the audience's question: Why is this important or significant? Purpose is what drives the speaker to present information that will make the audience think about something in a certain way or act in a certain manner. In the case of Stella Liebeck, the media presented information to illustrate the rise of frivolous lawsuits, and the initial response was what the media had hoped for. This response is important to analysis because it highlights the need for objectivity. Analysis is thinking about the material in an objective manner. In other words, to analyze a text you have to suspend judgement and avoid reacting. Reacting is not thinking. Reacting is drawing a conclusion before all the information or possibilities have been explored. The media's initial presentation of the Stella Liebeck lawsuit against McDonald's was more reaction than analysis.

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