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Controversial Supreme Court decisions change public opinion — in part because the media mostly report on them uncritically

- June 28, 2017
A news assistant runs out after the U.S. Supreme Court granted parts of the Trump administration’s emergency request to put his travel ban into effect immediately while the legal battle continues. (REUTERS/Yuri Gripas)

This week the Supreme Court announced its most controversial decision of the year, allowing parts of President Trump’s immigration ban to go into effect and inviting oral arguments in the fall. How might this decision affect public support for the president’s ban, and for his immigration agenda?

In a recent article in the Journal of Legal Studies, we found that Supreme Court rulings can affect how ordinary Americans perceive the issues under consideration in those rulings. Why? Because of the news media.

Justices keep their distance from the public. The news media interpret for them. 

Unlike presidents or members of Congress, justices do not speak directly to the public. Their decisions pass through media outlets, which must decide how to explain them. Therefore, the messages used by media, and television news in particular, have tremendous ability to shape how Americans respond to the Supreme Court. And media outlets tend to be far more deferential in reporting on court decisions than when reporting on Congress or the presidency. They often treat a court decision as the final word, rather than the beginning of a debate.

The ruling temporarily allows the administration to ban travelers from six mostly-Muslim countries from entering the country — unless those travelers have a “bona fide” connection to some person or entity in the United States, such as a family member or a job.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/06/27/will-trumps-new-rules-make-it-harder-to-get-asylum-in-the-u-s-that-will-vary-dramatically-from-one-judge-to-the-next/”]Will Trump’s new rules make it harder to get asylum in the U.S.? That will vary dramatically from one judge to the next.[/interstitial_link]

The news media could cover this in many ways. For example, they could portray the ruling as a victory for the administration, as a win for families looking to be reunited, as a question of national security or as an issue of fundamental rights.

Here’s how we did our research

To understand how the news media report on the Supreme Court, we examined how evening news programs covered aspects of two 2012 Supreme Court rulings: the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, under consideration in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, and the controversial “show your papers” provision of Arizona’s immigration law, Senate Bill 10170, under consideration in Arizona v. United States. The six networks in our study were ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and NBC.

We coded the extent to which these programs included messages — whether from hosts, guests, or politicians — that supported or criticized the majority opinions. Support included discussion about, for example, how the individual mandate would decrease the number of uninsured Americans or how the “show your papers” law could help keep the border secure. Criticism included discussion about the individual mandate as a tax or how the Arizona law could increase discriminatory racial profiling.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/06/22/trumps-travel-ban-is-built-on-a-law-meant-to-protect-the-u-s-from-jews-and-communists/”]Trump’s travel ban is built on a law meant to ‘protect’ the U.S. from Jews and communists[/interstitial_link]

Here’s what was striking: The networks largely — or almost exclusively — conveyed support for these court rulings. Of the 12 evening news programs in our study — two decisions, each reported on by six networks — nearly half covered the rulings with one-sided support, while the rest divided their coverage more evenly between support and criticism. Not once did we find one-sided negative coverage. Even when Fox covered the Obamacare decision, and when MSNBC covered the Arizona decision, each featured some arguments that supported the court majority.

Supportive coverage boosted public support for controversial decisions

To answer how coverage affected public opinion, we paired this media study with a two-wave nationally representative survey. A few weeks before each ruling and in the days afterward, we asked respondents how strongly they supported or opposed the ACA’s individual mandate or the Arizona “papers” provision. We also asked respondents which evening news programs they watched, to see how those outlets’ media coverage shifted public opinion. Because viewers choose their news outlets, we coupled this research with an experiment in which we randomly assigned supportive and critical messages.

Viewers who watched networks that covered the decisions supportively were likely to increase their support of the provisions. Viewers who watched networks that offered mixed coverage did not change their minds.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/06/27/this-is-why-so-many-republicans-are-ready-to-buck-public-opinion-on-health-care/”]This is why so many Republicans are ready to ignore public opinion on health care[/interstitial_link]

Those effects are significant. Immediately after the court’s ACA ruling, support for the individual mandate jumped from 29 to 35 percent among our respondents, who were representative of the U.S. population. That jump was even bigger among those who saw only supportive coverage.

Spanish-language television coverage was critical

Media outlets treat Supreme Court decisions with far more deference than they give presidential and congressional decisions. Had media coverage been more critical, public support might well have dropped. To examine that possibility, we looked at how two Spanish-language television programs, Univision and Telemundo, covered the immigration decision. Their extensive coverage was very critical. And that affected the Latinos who reported watching either Univision or Telemundo after the court’s “show your papers” decision, with support for the provision dropping from 43 to 25 percent.

Many news outlets have been quite critical of the Trump administration’s decisions. And so it is striking to see the media cover court decisions of Trump administration policies so deferentially. The original travel ban announcement and its revisions were widely criticized by liberal and mainstream media. But these same outlets offered much milder coverage of the court’s decision to uphold parts of the ban.

We will have to wait for the court’s final decision on the ban to see whether it affects public opinion on immigration. Our study suggests that there is little media coverage of cases early in judicial proceedings, such as when the court agrees to hear a case or when it hears oral arguments. Coverage is much more extensive when a final decision is announced. In this case, the court’s final decision could either uphold or strike the immigration ban.

Whatever the court does, the mainstream media are likely to continue reporting its decisions with great deference. Most Americans will therefore end up agreeing with the court. But we should expect significant backlash among immigrant communities, especially those most directly affected by the ban.

Katerina Linos is a professor at the University of California-Berkeley Law School.

Kimberly Twist is an assistant professor of political science at San Diego State University.