Student Media Watchdog Association

I Object: Jumping to Conclusions in Supreme Court News Coverage

In Editorial, Health law, Obama on April 15, 2012 at 11:54 am

By Katherine Bies

The oral arguments before the Supreme Court regarding the constitutionally of President Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act have raised speculation within journalists on how the Supreme Court will rule. However, as we have seen in past cases, oral arguments are not representative of a final decision and one should be cautious in jumping to conclusions. “Sometimes, justices may play devil’s advocate. Or, they may want help in framing their own answers,” writes Michael Doyle (2012). As much as journalists and their readers want to understand the inner-workings of the court, we will only know the court’s mindset when it delivers its opinion this June.

Many news organizations have made the mistake of being too decisive in their reporting of oral arguments. While this makes for interesting news coverage, it can be misleading.  The New York Times headline from March 28th, the closing day of the oral arguments, reads: “In Court, Sharp Questions on Health Care Law’s Mandate. ” Journalist Adam Liptak makes the claim in the first paragraph that these questions suggest “that a 5-to-4 decision to strike down the law was a live possibility.” Many news organizations, including the Times, came to this conclusion based on comments made by Justice Kennedy who often serves as the swing vote between the Liberals and Conservatives of the court and who may serve as the 5th vote in this case. However, Justice Kennedy’s actual opinion will not be known until the case is decided. Similarly, Robert Barnes, of The Washington Post, claimed that “the Supreme Court’s conservative justices appeared deeply skeptical Tuesday that a key component of President Obama’s sweeping health-care law is constitutional.” While these questions may be representative of these justices’ viewpoints, it is only speculation.

Fox News also published an article predicting the outcome of the case: “The Supreme Court on Monday appeared prepared to decide the fate of President Barack Obama’s sweeping healthcare law soon”. Again, the journalist is making a prediction. The Supreme Court does not actually have to decide whether the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional at this moment. Many appellate courts have ruled that a decision should be postponed until the law comes into effect and penalties are actually paid in 2015. The Supreme Court could easily follow suit and apply this rational.

Instead of speculating solely on oral arguments, journalists should focus their energy on how best to cover the health care decision this summer.  Linda Greenhouse, a former Supreme Court reporter for the New York Times, argues that reporters generally over-exaggerate or over-simplify court opinions resulting in decreased public understanding and increased misconceptions of the Supreme Court (1996). However, journalists, who only have access to what the Supreme Court allows, are not only to blame. Without television coverage and interviews, Supreme Court journalists are forced to rely solely on the justices’ opinions which are often complex, complicated and vague. In preparing for the health care decision, journalists should leave speculation to legal scholars and instead worry about covering the actual decision of this case as clearly and accurately as possible.

 

(March 26, 2012) U.S. Supreme Court Unlikely to Delay Health-Care Case. FoxNews. Retrieved from http://www.foxbusiness.com/industries/2012/03/26/us-supreme-court-unlikely-to-delay-health-care-case/

Barnes, R. (March 27, 2012) Supreme Court expresses doubts on key constitutional issue in health-care law. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/supreme-court-considers-main-constitutional-question-in-health-care-law/2012/03/26/gIQAkyKWdS_story.html

Doyle, M. (March 29, 2012) Can you predict an outcome from Supreme Court justices’ questions? McClatchy Washington Bureau. Retrieved from http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2012/03/29/v-print/143577/can-you-predict-an-outcome-from.html

Greenhouse, L. (1996) Telling the Court’s Story: Justice and Journalism at the Supreme Court. Yale Law Journal, 105(6), 1536-1561.

Liptak, A. (March 27, 2012). In Court, Sharp Questions on Health Care Law’s Mandate. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/28/us/hard-questions-from-conservative-justices-over-insurance-mandate.html?pagewanted=all

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