Case Salience and Media Coverage of Supreme Court Decisions: Toward a New Measure

Article excerpt

Abstract

Judicial behavior is contingent on case salience. Unfortunately, existing measures of case salience have met with some skepticism. After discussing the characteristics of an ideal measure of salience, the authors construct a new measure of case salience. This new measure expands on prior studies by examining coverage in four diverse newspapers and includes coverage anywhere in the paper, instead of concentrating on front-page coverage only. By developing this new measure, the authors uncover patterns about national media coverage of the Court and provide a potentially more useful measure of case salience.

Keywords

judicial decision-making, salience, media, Supreme Court

On June 10, 1996, the United States Supreme Court upheld the convictions of Michael Whren and James Brown. While the defendants were initially pulled over for minor traffic infractions, they were convicted of serious drug offenses.1 The young defendants were driving a new car in a known drug area and were African American. The defense in Whren v. United States contended that the investigating officers needed probable cause of drug activity for the stop. To rule otherwise, the defense argued, could justify racially discriminatory behavior (Sklansky 1997, 289). The Supreme Court's decision, stating that the judiciary should not look at the officer's subjective state of mind, was quickly heralded by law enforcement (Biskupic 1996), but criticized by many who suggested the opinion made all drivers "become prey to police officers' arbitrary whims, hunches, suspicions, and prejudices" (Levit 1996, 187).

On the same day as the Whren decision, New York City's mayor Rudi Giuliani agreed to a new budget; the city of Newark, New Jersey, implemented new policies to improve some of its failing schools; and presidential candidate Bob Dole announced changes to the Republican Party's platform concerning abortion. We know these events occurred because they were reported on the front page of the New York Times on June 11, 1996. Absent, however, from the Times front-page coverage is any mention of the Whren case. Although contemporary critics called this case a "clear step . . . toward authoritarianism, toward racist policing, and toward a view of minorities as criminals" (Harris 1997, 547), the Times placed a story about Whren on page 22. On the same day, however, the editors of Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times all devoted space on the front page of their papers to the Whren holding.

There could have been many reasons why the editors of the New York Times did not place the Whren decision on page 1. Perhaps they felt the case was not that important. Perhaps they felt that local issues, such as the Newark schools situation and the city's budget, were more interesting to their subscribers. Perhaps the conservative, pro-law enforcement decision did not coincide with the ideology of some of the editors, and these editors wanted to downplay the decision's relevance. Whatever their motivations, the result is that a Times reader may have a very different impression of the importance of the Whren decision, covered on page 22, than a reader of the many other papers across the nation that gave the decision front-page attention.

This example is not an indictment on the coverage of the Times, as reporters and editors must weigh a number of different characteristics of newsworthiness when deciding what to cover and where to place certain stories (Gans 1979). The problem arises when scholars use news coverage in the New York Times as a measure of a case's importance, relevance, or "salience." Using front-page coverage of the Times as the only indicator of salience could be problematic as many cases, just like Whren, may not appear on the Times' front page but may be considered salient based on other media outlets.

In this article, we further explore the idea of case salience, examine multiple newspapers' coverage of Supreme Court decisions, and propose a new measure of case salience. …