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MEDIA COVERAGE of the UNIVERSITY of MICHIGAN AFFIRMATIVE ACTION DECISIONS: The View from Mainstream, Black, and Latino Journalists

By Towner, Terri L.; Clawson, Rosalee A. et al. | Judicature, November/December 2006 | Go to article overview

MEDIA COVERAGE of the UNIVERSITY of MICHIGAN AFFIRMATIVE ACTION DECISIONS: The View from Mainstream, Black, and Latino Journalists


Towner, Terri L., Clawson, Rosalee A., Waltenburg, Eric N., Judicature


The missions of both the mainstream and specialized press affect their coverage of the Supreme Court, which in turn might well affect how their audiences perceive the institution.

T"he U.S. Supreme Court regularly articulates policies of profound political and social consequence. Rarely, however, does it take an active role in the broad dissemination of those policies to the public. Indeed, while members of the executive branch or Congress often appear publicly to make the case for a given policy, the Court simply delivers its opinion. As a result, the Court's policies are vulnerable to the way in which the media disseminate the news to the public-no small matter inasmuch as the media have a significant bearing on public opinion towards the Court's policies.1

This article investigates how different media outlets, particularly the mainstream, Black, and Latino presses, cover Supreme Court policies. To this end, we interviewed journalists from the mainstream and specialized presses who covered the 2003 University of Michigan affirmative action cases or the Supreme Court in general. Journalists seek to present information that is newsworthy, appealing to the audience, accurate, and understandable. To achieve this, they are expected to follow universally recognized norms and values of the profession-objectivity and fairness.2 These norms influence how journalists receive, select, and present information.3 Thus, we queried journalists on their selection of sources, their audience, norms, and the effect of exogenous forces on their coverage.

Given the two-sided nature of the affirmative action issue, we expected journalists to be "fair" and "objective" in their coverage of the cases and their selection of sources. We also expected that both the mainstream and specialized presses' content is constrained by the structure of their organizations. Nevertheless, we did not have identical expectations for both media outlets. Unlike the mainstream media, the Black and Latino press are also driven by their mission of advocacy. These specialized media act as a corrective to the mainstream presses' incomplete and often erroneous coverage of minority affairs.4 Thus, while objectivity and fairness are valued by the Black and Latino press, those norms are counterbalanced with the need to report from a minority angle. Consequently, we expected journalists from the specialized presses to present news differently from their mainstream equivalents.

The affirmative action cases

On December 2, 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to revisit the issue of the use of racial preferences in higher education in the University of Michigan affirmative action cases.5 By doing so, it placed itself in the middle of an emotionally charged and controversial issue. The Court had not spoken to the use of racial preferences in higher education since its seminal Bakke decision in 1978.6 There, it ruled that the use of racial quotas or "set aside" programs for minority applicants were unconstitutional. Higher education institutions responded by developing admissions procedures that promoted diversity by using race, gender, and other background characteristics as "plus factors" in their admissions decisions, while avoiding the use of racial quotas.

These procedures, however, had not settled the issue, and by the close of the twentieth century the post-Bakke affirmative action system was under significant stress; cracks were beginning to appear. In 1996, for example, the Fifth Circuit invalidated the University of Texas Law School's affirmative action admissions program altogether, and five years later, with substantial media attention, the Supreme Court denied certiorari.7 In 1997 and 1998, California and Washington state banned all forms of affirmative action in state institutions with Proposition 209 and Initiative 200, respectively. Finally, Florida approved the "One Florida" initiative in 2000, ending affirmative action in their state institutions.

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MEDIA COVERAGE of the UNIVERSITY of MICHIGAN AFFIRMATIVE ACTION DECISIONS: The View from Mainstream, Black, and Latino Journalists
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