Full-Court Press: An Examination of Media Coverage of State Supreme Courts*

Article excerpt

This analysis explores how case facts and the characteristics of media and the judiciary affect news coverage of the courts. It examines newspaper coverage of the decisions of twenty state supreme courts during calendar year 1998 and matches relevant stories to the cases contained in the Brace and Hall State Supreme Court Data Project (2002). The results are consistent with the hypotheses that case facts, media characteristics, and judicial characteristics all affect the probability that a case will receive news coverage.

Legendary United States Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse observed:

Press coverage of the courts is a subject at least as worthy of public concern and scholarly attention as press coverage of politics, perhaps even more so. . . . Qjudges, for the most part, speak only through their opinions, which are difficult for the ordinary citizen to obtain and understand. Especially in an era when the political system has ceded to the courts many of society's most difficult questions, it is sobering to acknowledge the extent to which the courts and the country depend on the press for the public understanding that is necessary for the health, and ultimately, the legitimacy of any institution in a democratic society (1996:1538).

Despite the admonitions of Greenhouse and other observers, scholars have paid only occasional attention to the link between the media and the judiciary, especially outside the U.S. Supreme Court. Furthermore, the scholars who have considered this question have not taken account of all of the factors that may affect decisions about what issues most merit news coverage.

This study fills that void in existing research by considering the interplay between case facts, media characteristics, and judicial characteristics in American state supreme courts. The analysis is aided by the State Supreme Court Data Project, a database of state supreme court decisions from 1995-98 assembled by Brace and Hall (2002) . The results are consistent with the hypotheses that case facts, media characteristics, and judicial characteristics all affect the probability that a case will receive news coverage.

THEORY

As Greenhouse (1996) notes, the press plays an important role in shaping what citizens know about their government. Nowhere is this role more visible or more important than with regard to the judiciary, which conducts most of its work in relative obscurity. Few citizens are able to observe the daily activities of judges and justices, and media coverage of the courts is far more limited than in the legislative or executive branches. Thus, a greater knowledge of the cases that are most likely to receive coverage allows researchers to better understand what citizens know about their judiciary.

A number of researchers have studied print and television news coverage of the United States Supreme Court (e.g. Ericson, 1977; Katsh, 1983; Larson, 1985; O'Callaghan and Dukes, 1992; Slotnick and Segal, 1998; Vermeer, 2002; HaiderMarkel, Allen, and Johansen, 2006). Taken as a whole, these studies demonstrate that only a small fraction of Supreme Court decisions receive coverage. The issue area of the case, attention from organized interests, and local importance appear to play especially significant roles in differentiating between the Supreme Court cases that receive coverage and those that do not.

Little is known, however, about what information citizens receive about the business of other courts (but see Hale, 1999, 2006). Studying these inferior courts is particularly important. Only a fraction of cases reach the U.S. Supreme Court; this body decides fewer than 100 cases each year. Therefore, most of the nation's judicial business is conducted in state and other federal courts.

Studying lower courts also enables a more in-depth analysis of how the quality and quantity of information citizens receive about the judiciary is affected by the varying institutional structures of the media and the judiciary. …