Patterns of Newspaper Reporting on State Supreme Courts*

By Vining, Richard L.; Wilhelm, Teena et al. | Justice System Journal, September 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Patterns of Newspaper Reporting on State Supreme Courts*


Vining, Richard L., Wilhelm, Teena, Hiers, Sara E., Marcin, Phil, Justice System Journal


Recent research has advanced scholarly understanding of media coverage of state courts of last resort. However, these studies focus on different media outlets and time periods. To determine whether coverage of state supreme court cases varies between media sources, we examine reporting in most-circulated and state-capital newspapers in twenty-four states from 2003 to 2008. Our results demonstrate that the most-circulated newspapers cover nearly twice as many decisions as capital-city newspapers. We also find that although the two types of newspapers devote similar coverage to similar types of cases, the population of cases covered by each type of newspaper differs substantially.

Observers have long recognized the role of the press in shaping the "pictures in our heads" of public affairs (Lippmann, 1922). However, limited scholarly consideration is given to media coverage of political institutions at the state level (e.g., Delli Carpini, Keeter, and Kennamer, 1994; Tan and Weaver, 2009) or in competing outlets (e.g., Druckman, 2005; Fowler and Ridout, 2009; O'Callaghan and Dukes, 1992). This oversight is acute for the judiciary, as few studies examine reporting on state courts (but see Hale, 2006; Yanus, 2009; Vining and Wilhelm, 2010) or how it varies in different news sources. Scholarship investigating coverage of state high courts routinely considers one of two types of newspapers - either states' most- circulated dailies or those based in capital cities - without examining whether reporting on courts is consistent among them. As a result, we do not know whether coverage of state high courts differs between newspapers with different locations, audiences, or resources. This omission is important because media coverage may influence perceptions of the judiciary and elite and popular responses to courts. Additionally, scholars generalize about reporting on courts based on inherently limited research results.

We address these gaps in the literature by comparing coverage of state supreme court decisions in most-circulated and capital-city newspapers, discussing its significance, and suggesting explanations for reporting on state courts of last resort in these outlets. Our findings indicate that most-circulated newspapers provide more frontpage coverage of state supreme court rulings than capital-city newspapers, and that the two types of newspapers tend to cover different sets of cases with similar attributes.

NEWSPAPER CONTENT AND COVERGE OF STATE HIGH COURTS

The scarcity of research on court-media relations is unfortunate, as judicial administrators acknowledge the need to improve communication between journalists and judiciary (see Hale, 1999).1 The importance of the relationship between state courts and the media cannot be understated, as it influences the depth, breadth, and accuracy of media coverage given to judicial institutions. In turn, this reporting may provide much of the information on which elites and citizens base their opinions about state courts of last resort. Media coverage influences the popular salience of judicial decisions, informs the news audience, and may affect the perceived legitimacy of the judiciary. Whether this coverage varies between media outlets, and particularly between most-circulated and capital-city newspapers, is an important but unexamined question.

Coverage of a state's high court is likely to differ between a state's most- circulated and capital-city newspapers for several reasons. Each publication selects stories for its audience as denned by the geographic market in which its readership is located (Picard, 2004b). Because most people get their news from local rather than national media (Althaus, 2007), newspapers must create a competitive product tailored to local audiences to maximize readership and advertising revenue (Dimmick, 2003). Localism in reporting is desirable and perceived by readers and editors as an indication of newspaper quality (Gladney, 1990). …

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