Supreme Court and press must work together to inform public, BYU law professor says

Only one-fourth of people polled in a recent survey knew how many justices serve in the Supreme Court, RonNell Andersen Jones, Brigham Young University law professor, told USU students Thursday. In the same survey, 63 percent of those polled couldn’t name a single justice and one-third couldn’t name any of the branches of government. “The majority of people can’t talk in broad brush strokes about the Supreme Court,” she said. So who is to blame for the public’s lack of knowledge, the Supreme Court or the press? The relationship between the media and the Supreme Court can be compared to a dysfunctional marriage, where the media and court are the parents and the citizens are the kids. While the relationship is damaged, the court and media still work together for the sake of the public. “Both have a shared interest, and that shared interest is in serving the public, in ensuring social learning, an appreciation of current legal affairs, and in turn ensuring the importance of the ongoing vibrancy of our democracy,” Jones said. While the court and the press agree that the general public is confused about the ins and outs of the Supreme Court, both sides believe the other group is 100 percent responsible for the confusion. The court believes that the press doesn’t dig into the issues deep enough, explain court rulings or identify how a ruling will effect the public, Jones said. They also get frustrated when the media misinterpret the intention or content of a court opinion. The press often picks up on cases that are surrounded in conflict and earn the public’s interest, and the court argues that this search for conflict often overshadows the need for the public to become more knowledgeable. The press believes the court is snobbish and cloistered. They attribute a lack of good court reporting to the court’s outright rejection of the press and refusal to be interviewed by or work with the press. The court hands out opinions in large quantities, and often a court opinion can consist of 150 or more pages. The media say the court justices, by refusing to be interviewed and by giving the press information in forms that can’t properly be digested before a deadline, make it difficult to give complete and accurate information. “The justices of the Supreme Court often balk that their high calling ought not bend to the needs of the press, which is an absolutely backward attitude to have,” Jones said. “It’s not the needs of the press, it’s the needs of the public, whom they claim to serve.” A solution to the problem can’t be achieved while both sides are still blaming one another, Jones said. It’s going to have to take participation from both the court and the press, and they’re going to have to work together. The press needs to better educate themselves in legal matters, and they need to look for stories that will give the readers the most knowledge instead of looking for stories with interesting conflict. The court needs to be more mindful of how it handles case information. Summaries of court cases could help reporters wade through mountains of information, and audio recordings of court proceedings made available to the press daily can help reporters determine the court’s intent. “I’m hopeful that both the press and the court can meet in the middle to make improvements that benefit both of their interests, and that, most importantly, benefit the American people who so heavily rely on what both of them do,” Jones said. – rachel@cvdaily.com

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