This book compares the volume and nature of online print and broadcast television coverage from major media outlets from all U.S. Supreme Court oral argument sessions during the October 2019, 2020, and 2021 Terms. The authors demonstrate that the move to livestreaming the Court’s oral argument sessions increased the frequency and depth of online print news media’s coverage in the short term but not in the long term. For both online print and broadcast outlets, their findings suggest that the benefits of increased transparency offered by livestreaming oral argument audio did not come with significant disadvantages for the Court in terms of long-term changes in its news media coverage.
The authors analysis provides timely evidence that speaks to the current, and ongoing, debate about public access to the Supreme Court. It also speaks to the likely consequences of permanently continuing the practice of livestreaming oral argument audio and sheds light on the ramifications of other potential expansions in transparency at the Supreme Court, such as livestreaming opinion announcement audio or providing live video coverage of the Court’s proceedings. This work speaks to the impact of increased access to oral arguments and the inner workings of government institutions more broadly. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court was not the only institution to grapple with the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic and opportunities for unprecedented, and instantaneous, access to anyone, anywhere. Better understanding the implications of the Court’s decision to livestream audio from its proceedings provides leverage on the consequences of greater government transparency for news media coverage and, by extension, individuals’ exposure to, and interaction with, government more generally.
Rachael Houston is assistant professor of political science at Texas Christian University. Her work has been published in the Justice System the Journal and Journal of Supreme Court History, and in a variety of encyclopedias and blogs.
Timothy R. Johnson is Horace T. Morse Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Law at the University of Minnesota. He has published several books about the U.S. Supreme Court, including Oral Arguments and Coalition Formation on the U.S. Supreme Court, A Good Quarrel, and Oral Arguments and Decision Making on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Eve M. Ringsmuth is associate professor of political science at Oklahoma State University where she teaches judicial politics, American political institutions, and civic education. Ringsmuth has co-authored the book, It's Not Personal: Politics and Policy in Lower Court Confirmation Hearings, and her work has been published in journals such as American Politics Research, International Studies Quarterly, Political Behavior, and Political Research Quarterly.
List of Figures
List of Tables
Introduction: The Supreme Court, Media Coverage and Oral Arguments
Chapter 1: Examining News Media Coverage of Supreme Court Oral Arguments
Chapter 2: Did Livestreamed Arguments Increase Online Print Media Coverage of the Supreme Court Oral Arguments?
Chapter 3: Did Livestreamed Arguments Change How Online Print Media Covered the Court?
Chapter 4: Did Livestreamed Arguments Change the Volume and Content of Broadcast Media Coverage?
Discussion and Conclusion
About the Authors
SCOTUS and COVID is a timely and accessible book. Houston, Johnson, and Ringsmuth combine their interdisciplinary focus on the U.S. Supreme Court, COVID's impact on institutional procedures, and the media with strong new data and careful social science research methods. The result is a wonderful new book that will make a great addition to courses and scholarly research agendas alike!
Houston, Johnson, and Ringsmuth examine a topic that has needed reevaluating for a long time – media coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court’s oral arguments in the press and beyond. What is more, they do it during a pivotal point in our nation’s history to understand if, and how, the justices and media reacted to the Covid-19 Pandemic. This book covers a topic that will continue to be cited for years to come to explain anomalous trends and behavior at the Court during this transformative period and raises important questions for future researchers to consider.
At a time when the Supreme Court’s role and legitimacy is a hotly debated question, this book jumps into these debates with an important perspective. The authors have quickly analyzed a huge shift in media access to Supreme Court arguments – brought about by the exigency of the pandemic – to answer enduring questions of transparency, the role of media, and democratic accountability. The book shines, due to both its timeliness and timelessness.
The Supreme Court is an institution shrouded in mystery, but the justices have always opened their doors to the public and the media and allowed them to watch attorneys argue their cases before the Court. Oral argument is the most public thing the Supreme Court does, yet the justices have been slow to provide broad access to it, refusing to allow cameras in the courtroom or release transcripts and voice recordings in a timely manner. The justices claim they do this to avoid misinterpretation of their work -- after all, the Court's work is different from Congress's work, and the Court should consequently not be scrutinized in the same public manner. But everything changed in May 2020, when the Supreme Court agreed to livestream oral argument during the COVID-19 pandemic. For the first time, the general public had access to oral argument, and, as Houston, Johnson, and Ringsmuth point out, the public and the media had their first chance to watch and react to the Court in real time. SCOTUS and COVID explains what broader access meant for media coverage of the Court in short and long term. Part history, part empirical analysis, and all interesting, this book offers a phenomenal look at why the Court opened its virtual doors to the public, how that changed coverage of the Supreme Court, and whether the Court's concern about offering information in real time was justified (spoiler alert: the results suggest they were worried about nothing). This is a must read for anyone interested in the Court, the media, and access to political institutions.
I am happy to include a new and exciting book in my undergraduate class on the Supreme Court. The authors cleverly examine how the Supreme Court—not famous for being adaptive to current technologies—responded to the pandemic while managing the ebb and flow of its docket and interacted with the media and the public. The research also offers insight into the rich literature on the institutional history and evolution of the Supreme Court, especially with regards to its relationship with the press. This work will resonate with college students who also had to evolve and adapt during the pandemic.