Case Salience and Media Coverage of Supreme Court Decisions

Date01 June 2012
DOI10.1177/1065912911404565
Published date01 June 2012
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
65(2) 396 –407
© 2012 University of Utah
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DOI: 10.1177/1065912911404565
http://prq.sagepub.com
On June 10, 1996, the United States Supreme Court upheld
the convictions of Michael Whren and James Brown. While
the defendants were initially pulled over for minor traffic
infractions, they were convicted of serious drug offenses.1
The young defendants were driving a new car in a known
drug area and were African American. The defense in
Whren v. United States contended that the investigating
officers needed probable cause of drug activity for the
stop. To rule otherwise, the defense argued, could justify
racially discriminatory behavior (Sklansky 1997, 289). The
Supreme Court’s decision, stating that the judiciary should
not look at the officer’s subjective state of mind, was
quickly heralded by law enforcement (Biskupic 1996), but
criticized by many who suggested the opinion made all
drivers “become prey to police officers’ arbitrary whims,
hunches, suspicions, and prejudices” (Levit 1996, 187).
On the same day as the Whren decision, New York City’s
mayor Rudi Giuliani agreed to a new budget; the city of
Newark, New Jersey, implemented new policies to improve
some of its failing schools; and presidential candidate Bob
Dole announced changes to the Republican Party’s plat-
form concerning abortion. We know these events occurred
because they were reported on the front page of the New York
Times on June 11, 1996. Absent, however, from the
Times front-page coverage is any mention of the Whren
case. Although contemporary critics called this case a “clear
step . . . toward authoritarianism, toward racist policing,
and toward a view of minorities as criminals” (Harris 1997,
547), the Times placed a story about Whren on page 22. On
the same day, however, the editors of Washington Post,
404565PRQ65210.1177/1065912911404565Co
llins and CooperPolitical Research Quarterly
1Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, NC
Corresponding Author:
Todd A. Collins, Department of Political Science and Public Affairs,
Western Carolina University, 358 Stillwell Building,
Cullowhee, NC, USA
Email: todd.a.collins@gmail.com
Case Salience and Media Coverage
of Supreme Court Decisions:
Toward a New Measure
Todd A. Collins1 and Christopher A. Cooper1
Abstract
Judicial behavior is contingent on case salience. Unfortunately, existing measures of case salience have met with some
skepticism. After discussing the characteristics of an ideal measure of salience, the authors construct a new measure of
case salience. This new measure expands on prior studies by examining coverage in four diverse newspapers and includes
coverage anywhere in the paper, instead of concentrating on front-page coverage only. By developing this new measure,
the authors uncover patterns about national media coverage of the Court and provide a potentially more useful measure
of case salience.
Keywords
judicial decision-making, salience, media, Supreme Court
Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times all devoted space
on the front page of their papers to the Whren holding.
There could have been many reasons why the editors
of the New York Times did not place the Whren decision
on page 1. Perhaps they felt the case was not that important.
Perhaps they felt that local issues, such as the Newark
schools situation and the city’s budget, were more interest-
ing to their subscribers. Perhaps the conservative, pro–law
enforcement decision did not coincide with the ideology of
some of the editors, and these editors wanted to downplay
the decision’s relevance. Whatever their motivations, the
result is that a Times reader may have a very different impres-
sion of the importance of the Whren decision, covered on
page 22, than a reader of the many other papers across the
nation that gave the decision front-page attention.
This example is not an indictment on the coverage of
the Times, as reporters and editors must weigh a number of
different characteristics of newsworthiness when deciding
what to cover and where to place certain stories (Gans 1979).
The problem arises when scholars use news coverage in
the New York Times as a measure of a case’s importance,
relevance, or “salience.” Using front-page coverage of the
Times as the only indicator of salience could be problematic

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