The Press, the Public, and the U.S. Supreme Court

Article excerpt

The 2012 BYU Law Review Symposium, "The Press, the Public, and the U.S. Supreme Court," brought together prominent national reporters who regularly cover the United States Supreme Court and top scholars from the fields of law, communications, and political science whose academic work focuses on the relationship between the media and the Court. During two days of scholarly presentations, panels, and workshop discussions, the participants in the multidisciplinary event investigated the complex dynamic between the Court and the media that reports on its work. They explored proposals that might improve public understanding of the Court and in turn improve the health of the democracy.

The scholarship produced by the event is voluminous and insightful. This symposium issue of the law review offers thoughtful research on the behavior of justices and journalists, commentary on the Court's historical relationships with and views of the media, comparisons of the Court's press accommodations with those of other courts of last resort, and important new insights into the ongoing debate over the use of cameras and other new media technology at the Court. It should serve as a valuable resource to scholars and to decisionmakers in the judiciary and the media.

The final session of the symposium was a workshop discussion in which groups of journalists and scholars from all three academic fields engaged in collaborative conversations focused on four main questions related to the symposium's theme. The responses from the workshop groups offer proposals for consideration and provide guidance for scholars and policymakers who wish to continue the important dialogue about the relationships between and among people, the press, and the United States Supreme Court:

What are the biggest problems in the relationship between the Court and the press?

Symposium participants cited large-scale misunderstandings on the part of both the media and the Court that seem to plague the work of both institutions. The media at least sometimes misunderstand the work that the Justices do, and the Justices often appear to misunderstand the goals and needs of reporters.

Some of the problems identified in the workshop were related to the nature, style, or depth of news coverage. Participants recognized problems with the evolving economics of newsrooms and the dwindling number of reporters dedicated to covering the Court. They expressed discouragement at the increasing frequency with which scholars and lawyers comment to the press before having read an opinion of the Court. Many felt that news stories too frequently focus on 5-4 decisions and speak of the Court as a political institution by mentioning the appointing president of the Justices in question. Some also believed that there are too few stories that offer background on cases or provide a full context for the decision the Court is making. One group expressed concern about the temptation of members of the press to write stories that curry favor with the Justices or are overly protective of the institution, to the detriment of public understanding.

Other perceived problems center on the Court's lack of confidence in the media and general negative perceptions of it. Participants believed the Justices do not trust journalists to report well, to behave ethically, or to draw boundaries in their coverage of personal lives. Many participants cited as the primary problem plaguing the relationship between the press and the Court the fact that access by the press is seen as threatening. The Justices - like all individuals in authority - prefer to operate without close coverage, and the workshop participants found many of their arguments for exceptionalism unconvincing.

Journalists and scholars at the symposium argued that at least some of the Court's policies toward the press intentionally or inadvertently convey that the Justices do not care about members of the media, do not believe them to be engaged in any public-serving behavior, and do not consider their needs. …