“Media Coverage and Public Approval of the U.S. Supreme Court,” published in Political Communication, suggests the the lustre of the Supreme Court declined in recent decades partly because of media coverage that frame the body’s decisions as insincere and political. The study showed that media sources frequently resort to “game-frame” coverage, which framed the court’s decisions in terms of political winners and losers and the “language of sport and war.” Game-frame coverages uses terms and phraseology such as “bombshell,” “attack,” “”losing side,” “curveball,” and “won the battle.”

According to the researchers, game-frame coverage became more common between 1990 and 2010. Concurrently, public support for the Supreme Court declined significantly. Professors Matthew Hitt of Colorado State University and Kathleen Searles of Louisiana State University write in the report that they are “the first to present evidence of culpability in the mysterious decline in public support for the Court in the modern era.” They added, “Thus, we may offer an amendment to the truism: To know the Court is to love it, but to watch coverage of the Court is to dislike it.” 

The authors of the study wrote: “Given increased reliance on the game frame by news broadcasters, at the very least, this work suggests that any effects are unlikely to return to a baseline, and at most, it might be the case that we have not yet seen the full extent of political coverage of the Court. In other words, we may have entered a news environment, dominated by politicized coverage of the Court, from which we cannot return.” They suggested that the Supreme Court would have more control over how its decisions are covered by having a press office that issued short summaries of judgments in lay terms. “A press office could also help the Court manage public-facing communications, and perhaps better mitigate press proclivities toward controversy and conflict,” they wrote.

Authors Hitt and Searles analyzed more than 1,000 transcripts of broadcast news coverage of Supreme Court decisions between 1990 and 2010, using transcripts from broadcast networks ABC, NBC and CBS as well as cable networks CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. They also referred to public opinion surveys collected by Gallup, Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University, and other organizations. They conducted a survey experiment to gauge whether the language TV news media use when covering the Supreme Court influences public perception. For that part of the study, they randomly assigned 404 participants to view a video clip showing one of two different styles of coverage of the same court ruling. One clip presented “principled” coverage, which focused on the policy implications of the decision, legal precedent and the history behind arguments made in the case. The second clip featured game-frame coverage — a discussion of the strategic implications of the decision and who “won” the case.

Highlights of the study include: 

NBC used a game-frame approach to covering Supreme Court decisions more often than the other networks in the study. CNN did it least.

People who watched game-frame coverage were less likely to agree with and accept the court’s decision than those who viewed coverage that focused on legal principles.
 

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Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat and the editor of Spero News.

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