Assessing gatekeeping factors and jurist and journalist perceptions of gatekeeping and framing in media coverage of the Texas high courts

Date

2019-12

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Abstract

Media coverage of state supreme courts has received significantly less attention from scholars than coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court. At the same time, those who have studied the state high courts have come from a diversity of disciplines and applied varying research methods. Little is known about the modern perceptions on the part of jurists and media professionals about the quality and appropriateness of media coverage of decisions of the high courts and about what variables lead to coverage of decisions of the appellate courts. The nature of Texas and its judicial system offers two unique features that make it ideal for research in this area. First, Texas is a large state with several regional publications that produce coverage of supreme court decisions. That allows for greater consideration of geographic proximity as a predictor variable to coverage in addition to the other more common predictor variables considered in previous research, including subject matter. At the same time, Texas is one of just two states with a pair of high courts, one for civil cases and one for criminal cases. That bifurcation of the Supreme Court of Texas and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals offers an opportunity to examine differences in coverage related to civil and criminal appellate coverage often masked in previous research. This research included qualitative and quantitative approaches to better understand the perceptions of coverage and the factors that lead to coverage of both of those high courts. This research included interviews with jurists on the Supreme Court of Texas, with judges on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and with members of Texas media outlets who made decisions about which cases decided by each court receive coverage by their respective media outlets. The interviews sought to determine the key gatekeeping factors jurists believe lead to coverage of high court decisions as well as the factors media professionals believe lead to coverage. The interviews also sought to identify the primary news frames jurists and journalists believed were applied by media outlets when covering the decisions. In addition, the research included a content analysis of media coverage of cases over a five-year period that sought to identify key predictor variables to coverage of the cases. Interviews with jurists on both Texas high courts and with journalists who cover them in many ways replicated the findings from previous research, but differed in key ways. Jurists believed they were less covered than other governmental entities, despite their election on a statewide ballot. Some differences in viewpoint emerged between members of the civil high court and the criminal high court, with the latter generally arguing their decisions were covered less and in a more shallow way. Members of both courts identified an important role media play in educating the public about their work. Journalists appeared to be less satisfied with their own coverage of the courts than their counterparts in previous research and, like the jurists, attributed that to declining resources available from media outlets. Jurists and journalists shared similar views of what makes a particular court decision newsworthy, though journalists were far more likely to identify proximity, whether a case originated locally or had a local connection, to be a prime factor in coverage, either at the civil high court or the criminal high court than were the jurists. Despite declining resources, most journalists defended changes in coverage that has resulted in fewer publications assigning reporters to a high court “beat” whereas longtime jurists argued that structure led to better coverage in the past. Jurists recognized the potential of journalists, consciously or unconsciously, to frame coverage of high court opinions and, through examples, helped identify several frames that could be useful in future research of appellate court coverage. Among the most common frames cited were the Winner and Loser Frame, in which the entirety of coverage focuses on the outcome of the case rather than the rationale, on which jurists say they spend the bulk of their time, the David versus Goliath Frame, in which coverage focuses on the decision’s impact on the weaker party in the case, regardless of the outcome or the issues decided, and two related frames, the Ideological Frame, in which decisions are reported in terms of the court’s preference for or hostility to an industry or institution, and the Political Frame, in which decisions of the court are cast in terms of political leanings or affiliations. Journalists defended attention to the elements of each frame described as appropriate information to fully develop and explain court decisions. Finally, quantitative research supports prior research but offers a more nuanced window into what drives media coverage of the two high courts. A significant number of cases are covered by a single media outlet, which indicates journalists are making newsworthiness decisions independently rather than as a collective. A most significant finding was the divergence between the Supreme Court of Texas and the Court of Criminal Appeals with regard to several variables that have been identified in the past as predicting coverage at the federal and state supreme court levels. While an increase in the number of amicus briefs, an indicator of prominence and importance, was predictive of more coverage at both Texas high courts, several other factors were statistically significant predictors only at the criminal high court and not the civil high court, including per curiam opinion (a negative predictor), reversal of a lower court decision or a grant of relief, and the number of judges dissenting. The data were consistent with past research that indicated civil rights, First Amendment, death penalty, education, taxation and environmental law were all statistically significant predictors of coverage of court decisions. Data indicate proximity is a more consistent predictor of coverage at the Court of Criminal Appeals than the Supreme Court. Regional media outlets across the state were more likely to cover the outcome of high court cases that originated in their coverage area, indicating media outlets treat criminal cases more as local stories than statewide legal stories. On the other hand, geographic origination appeared to have no relationship with high court coverage at the three largest media outlets but did at the two smallest, indicating larger publications consider other factors to be more significant news values than proximity when considering what cases to cover.

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Keywords

Courts, Gatekeeping, Framing

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