News media coverage

Reporting by television, newspaper, radio, wire service, and other forms of mass communication on the activities of the Supreme Court.

Although the Supreme Court wields considerable autonomy and power, the Court has never operated in a vacuum. The news media serve as a vital link between the Court and the American public, educating the citizenry on Court activities and communicating the public’s reaction back to the Court. However, the extent to which press coverage and public opinionPublic opinion re the Court influence the Court’s decisions is known only to the justices.

Despite the media’s vital communication role, many studies indicate low public knowledge of the Court. The majority of cases remain virtually invisible to most citizens, and a 1995 nationwide poll noted that only 17 percent of Americans could correctly name three Supreme Court justices.

Media coverage often bestows importance to some issues before the Court at the expense of others. Research suggests that while the media may not actually tell the public what to think, its coverage decisions do influence the topics to which the public gives some thought. However, the public’s response to coverage is not always consistent. In fact, some issues receive relatively little public attention, despite heavy coverage by the news media.

Often, coverage of Court decisions is ancillary to reporting on the reaction of the public and political elites to those decisions. Story selection frequently relies on the perceived “newsworthiness” of the Court’s actions. Civil rights and liberties issues are twice as likely to be covered as business or economic issues, and studies suggest that many cases covered by national media were not considered very important by legal experts. Also, reporters often make the mistake of suggesting that the Court’s denial of certiorari is an automatic affirmation of a lower court’s decision.

Generally, little media attention is paid to the justices themselves, except when they are nominated or leaving the Court. For example, the controversy surrounding allegations by Anita HillThomas-Hill hearings of sexual harassment against then-Court nominee Clarence Thomas received extensive coverage. Often, appointment coverage focuses on the confirmation process as a test of the nominating president’s power.

Conflict in decisions is another key determinant of newsworthiness. For example, less than half of the 1994-1995 term’s cases were unanimous decisions, and coverage often focused on these conflicting opinions. Conflicts are frequently politicized by the media to enhance perceived dissension within the Court.

Challenges to News Coverage

Much of the Court’s business is conducted behind the scenes, creating an almost mystical aura that translates into comparatively little media attention. One study found that the presidency receives about 8.3 times as much news coverage as the Court, and Congress averages 4.1 times more coverage. In 1989, for example, the Court handed down full decisions in 144 cases, yet only 24 percent received any network television news coverage, and only 11 percent were covered by all three major networks.

A variety of reasons make coverage of Court activities particularly challenging. Court activity is inherently episodic, and reporters do not know in advance when the Court will issue specific opinions. However, media representatives must, within a few hours, understand, interpret, and summarize the Court’s decisions and reasoning, and suggest the implications of decisions that may have taken months to reach. Legal news is more easily misinterpreted than many other kinds of news. The complexities of language and ideas, combined with the journalists’ need for concise, timely reporting, all act to work against comprehensive, accurate coverage.

Generally speaking, the Court has demonstrated little regard for the media in terms of timing or presentation of decisions. Until the late 1920’s, the press did not receive proofs of opinions, and even then, the Court did not provide full text until opinions had been completely read in the courtroom. A hasty and inaccurate inference made by the Associated Press during the Gold Clause Cases[case]Gold Clause Cases[Gold Clause Cases] (1935) led to the Associated Press reporting a decision that was the exact opposite of the Court’s intent. As a result, media representatives now receive full text of opinions the moment the justice starts reading from the bench.

In 1965 the Court changed its long-standing practice of reporting decisions only on Mondays. These “Decision Monday” sessions often resulted in the release of up to fifteen decisions within a few hours. The change allowed the Court to report decisions at any session. Nonetheless, up to 40 percent of decisions are still released during the last few weeks of the session, with nearly 20 percent of decisions reported in the last week.

Unlike other areas of government, the Court does not comment on its decisions and cannot engage in public relations activities. There are no briefings, press conferences, or public relations people to expand on the Court’s decisions. Unlike press offices in other branches, the Court’s three-person public information officePublic information office simply feeds decisions and other data to media representatives without explanations, significant comment, or background materials. Consequently, interest groups often act as informal press secretaries to the Court, giving their group’s own interpretation of opinions to the media.

The Court’s work is primarily reflected in words, the forte of print journalism. Consequently, only about 25 percent of all Court decisions are covered by major television networks.

The number of legal affairs journalists has grown since the 1970’s, but only twelve to fifteen reporters exclusively cover the Court and most of them do not have formal legal training. Reporters covering the Court tend to be more passive and analytical than other reporters, characteristics well-suited to the closed-mouth and technically complex environment of the Court.

Further Reading

  • Epstein, Lee, ed. Contemplating Courts. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1995.
  • Greenhouse, Linda. “Telling the Court’s Story: Justice and Journalism at the Supreme Court.” Yale Law Journal (April, 1996).
  • Hindman, Elizabeth Blanks. Rights vs. Responsibilities: The Supreme Court and the Media. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.
  • Slotnick, Elliot E. Television and the Supreme Court. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988.


First Amendment

Public information office

Public opinion re the Court

Reporting of opinions