Media Coverage And The Supreme Court
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Now let's talk about the way television news talks about the Supreme Court. A recent study in the Journal of Political Communication found that how TV news covers the court's decisions can affect the way the public views their rulings and the institution itself. It's a specific type of TV news coverage - the kind that doesn't focus on the legal reasoning or public policy impact but is framed...
MATTHEW HITT: ...Using language that evokes sports or war. Who won? Who lost? What was the strategy? What were the tactics?
WERTHEIMER: Give it a game frame. Matthew Hitt cowrote that study. He's an assistant professor of political science at Colorado State University.
HITT: So we analyzed television coverage of major Supreme Court decisions for 20 years and connected that to public approval of the court. And we also conducted an experiment where we randomly exposed ordinary people to different kinds of coverage and did find that, indeed, being told about a Supreme Court decision in these game-like strategic terms reduced the level of support that individuals were willing to extend to that decision. They didn't agree with it as much. And they didn't, importantly, accept it as much and say it ought not be challenged.
WERTHEIMER: So do you think that that happens because people sort of disrespect the idea - I mean, it's lowered the whole thing to the concept of sport, so they don't have to take it very seriously? Or do you think maybe they understand it better because it's been put in terms of sports, and they don't like it?
HITT: I think the reason we see this effect is not that people don't know that the Supreme Court has an ideology, has certain preferences. Instead, what tends to bother people is the sense that the Supreme Court is lowered to the sort of insincere, partisan bickering and squabbling and fighting that you might see in other elected institutions.
WERTHEIMER: Did you look at why the news media has stooped to this level? I mean, perhaps the news business has become so competitive.
WERTHEIMER: Therefore, they are more anxious - or I should say, therefore, we are more anxious...
WERTHEIMER: ...To entertain the audience - to make these dull court opinions sound like something else?
HITT: (Laughter) Well, I would certainly say that, you know, for many of the opinions of the court, folks in your business have a tough hill to climb to make it interesting. And I don't mean to cast any aspersions on what the media are doing.
WERTHEIMER: Cast away. Cast away.
HITT: Yeah (laughter). The aspersion I will cast, though, is this - right? - it's not as if journalists are trying to lower the court in the public mind. It's simply that the incentives of the television news, in particular for our study's purposes, are changing. Competition, drama, strategy - it is more compelling than hearing a dry treatise on the due process clause.
HITT: So I'm not unsympathetic.
WERTHEIMER: Stare decisis.
HITT: (Laughter) Yeah, exactly.
WERTHEIMER: So where does this take us, do you think?
HITT: As long as the Supreme Court - I would argue - completely abdicates any of its own responsibility for communicating its decisions - as you know, reporters show up. The justices announce something from the bench, and a dense legal opinion is handed to everyone. And that's it. There are supreme courts in other countries - the United Kingdom, for example - that release one or two-page press summaries that explain in more clear language what the court has done and why, for example. So
as long as the Supreme Court of the United States refuses to engage with the media in any meaningful way, then it's going to be up to the media and newsroom incentives to communicate what the court is doing to the public. And, as we show here, unfortunately, that does have some consequences for how ordinary people perceive the court.
WERTHEIMER: Matthew Hitt is an assistant professor of political science at Colorado State University. Thank you very much for doing this.
HITT: Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF AIOLOS RUE'S "JUST FOR KICKS")
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