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Study: Media coverage of Supreme Court more political in recent history

The media’s coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court has become more political in recent years, according to research from a University of Iowa law professor.

Associate Professor Cristina Tilley talked about her recent scholarly article, “Supreme Court Journalism: From Law to Spectacle?”, on Marquette University Law School’s “On the Issues” program on Wednesday.

The article examined two similar U.S. Supreme Court cases and newspaper coverage of each. In Brown v. Board of Education, the court unanimously ruled that state laws allowing racial segregation in public schools were unconstitutional. In Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No 1 in 2007, the justices, in a split decision, found that plans using racial classifications to achieve diversity in school districts were not sufficiently narrowly tailored.

Tilley, her co-author and a research assistant categorized reporting about both cases as legal or political. Legal coverage included references to the Constitution, statute and precedent cases. Political coverage looked at discussions of justices’ ideology and political affiliations, which presidents appointed the justices, and opinions about the court’s work from third-party interest groups.

Tilley said in Brown, 53% of the explanations given for the court’s work were legal explanations, and 47% were political. Fifty-three years later, reporting about Parents Involved was 30% legal and 70% political.

“(Parents Involved had) lots more discussion about judicial ideology, identifying the justices as liberal or conservative, identifying the president who appointed them, and lots more reliance on outside interest groups commenting on the court’s work,” Tilley said.

Tilley thought a shortened news cycle was one of the biggest reasons for the shift. Reporters had more time to read briefs and digest legal arguments in the ’50s. Now they are dealing with almost instantaneous news cycle brought on by social media.

Ten of the 13 newspapers covering the Brown decision printed the Supreme Court’s opinion in full. In 2007, Tilley said reporters relied on third parties to explain the decision and how it aligned with the groups’ policy preferences.

Again, tighter deadlines on a shorter news cycle likely lend to reporters’ reliance on third parties. Tilley said the Supreme Court tends to announce the most cases that are likely to be subjects of controversy at the end of its term, so reporters are often scrambling to cover several big cases on the same day.

“That doesn’t give reporters the opportunity to do their best work and to be an honest broker translating that complex work of the court to readers in really digestible language,” Tilley said.

Tilley suggested the court consider spacing out prominent cases and releasing embargoed opinions to reporters to allow more time to analyze and report on decisions, a common practice in some courts around the world. If the public understands the legal reasoning in the court’s opinions, people are more likely to abide by those decisions, Tilley said. When confidence falls, the public becomes more receptive to changing the court.

“The less confidence Americans have in the court, the more receptive they’re going to be to letting whatever party that is in power change the nature of the court because they don’t see the court as doing something uniquely legal,” Tilley said.

The entire “On the Issues” conversation with Tilley is available via the Marquette Law School website.


About Michaela Paukner, mpaukner@wislawjournal.com

Michaela Paukner is the legal reporter for the Wisconsin Law Journal. She can be reached at (414) 225-1825 or by email at mpaukner@wislawjournal.com.

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