Media Musings: Supreme Court and covering court cases

Court cases you should know about

The Supreme Court's term ended with several huge decisions in cases dealing with abortion, affirmative action and immigration. With several hot-button issues being examined, the Supreme Court has been front page news for several days.

Two colleagues discuss mistakes made in reporting on court cases and how to avoid them.


L: The Supreme Court just ended its term for the year and handed down some pretty big decisions on abortion, affirmative action and immigration.

J: Covering Supreme Court cases along with other federal cases tends to be the bread and butter for a lot of newspapers and media organizations because that can affect the way people live their lives. However, sometimes cases get misreported on. Either because a journalist doesn't have the knowledge to cover a case correctly or people just simply re-report what other media organizations report on.

L: And one of the most common areas that mistakes are made is in misinterpreting what the Court is actually doing. So the Supreme Court either decides to hear a case or it doesn't decide to hear a case. And if it doesn't hear a case, the lower court decision just stands for that Circuit — for that part of the country. It doesn't apply to the rest of the country.

J: Another way journalists can mishandle the reporting of court cases is in the verbiage they use. Legal jargon can tend to be high brow and sometimes in attempts to simplify the language, they can end up using the wrong words.

J: Another trap that news organizations and reporters can fall into is not reading through, or far enough into the opinion. There was two parts to that decision, in one part they struck down the health care mandate based on the commerce clause, but they also upheld it under the taxing powers of the government. So, the individual healthcare mandate is legal and constitutional. And in not reading through that whole opinion, people ended up misreporting what the Supreme Court actually decided.

J: Journalists can end up paying way too much attention to the drama and the hype that surrounds the case and use that as filler in the reporting, rather than referring to the facts.

L: That's a good point especially because the Supreme Court often consolidates cases that have a similar Constitutional question or concern. So like the contraceptive mandate part of Obamacare was under review this term and they consolidated eight cases that dealt with the same issue. So it's important to realize that even though somebody's name is in the case title, they might not be the best person to put a face on the story.

J: Some tips for court reporting would definitely be: know the case and all of the facts of the case, understand legal jargon, understand how the court handles specific types of cases. A grand jury is very different from a regular trial. Where it is in the Supreme Court process can significantly differ.

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