Supreme Court coverage reinforces public’s distrust of media

There’s a lot riding on press coverage of courts, yet judges and lawyers often complain that journalists do a poor job of it. Case in point: the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent hearing on affirmative action.

In a lawsuit that could ultimately affect admissions at other public universities, Abigail Fisher sued the University of Texas at Austin for race discrimination after it rejected her for admission in 2008. 

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Much of the mainstream media’s coverage of the closely watched case can be summarized as “lies, damned lies and statistics.” It speaks to why public trust of journalists is at an all time low.

Journalists at the Washington PostChristian Science Monitor and The Nation — among many others — reported that 168 applicants who were black or Latino had better grades and standardized test scores than Fisher who is white. This revelation seems to invalidate Fisher’s claim that her application for admission was sabotaged by affirmative action.

Except it’s not true.

UT evaluates applicants on two scales: an Academic Index, which is determined by grades and standardized test scores, and a Personal Achievement Index, which is based on factors such as extracurricular activities, socio-economic background and race. The admissions committee uses the combined AI/PAI score to make their decisions. All of this is clearly explained on page 16 of the brief UT submitted for the case. 

So, while those 168 minority students may have had higher AI/PAI scores, there is no basis of fact to support media outlets’ claim that they had the same or better grades and test scores compared to Fisher. There is, in fact, no way of knowing whether those students had higher, lower or equal grades and test scores to Fisher. It is entirely possible that Fisher's AI/PAI scores would have been higher than most or all of those minority students had race not been a factor in those scores.

Of course, this revelation does not mean that Fisher was entitled to admissions at UT. But, it does cast doubt on many media reports, such as Slate’s claim that “The Supreme Court might destroy affirmative action because this white woman’s grades weren’t good enough” and Salon’s assertion that “the plaintiff’s claim to injury is demonstrably untrue.” 

Moreover, it reveals an endangered news ecosystem. 

Most media outlets got this factoid secondhand, citing a 2013 ProPublica report. The error made by the investigative journalism website has been pointed out before and, while some journalists have corrected it, many continue to make it. 

ProPublica reporters were guilty of sloppy journalism, of course. But, media outlets that have repeated their claim are also blameworthy. Had journalists bothered to fact check by reading the court documents, they could have avoided this mistake. Instead, they practiced lazy journalism, relying on another source to do their homework and copying and pasting the inaccurate information into their story. Journalists should know better.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics first principle is to “Seek truth and report it.” It explains, “Journalists should: Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before releasing it. Use original sources whenever possible.” In other words, as the old journalism saying goes, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

Alas, the days of original reporting and fact-checking appear to be over. A 2010 Pew Research Center 2010 study of the press found, “eight out of ten stories studied simply repeated or repackaged previously published information.” It explained, “the number of people gathering news in traditional television, print and radio organizations is shrinking markedly … As the press scales back on original reporting and dissemination, reproducing other people’s work becomes a bigger part of the news media system.” If the vaunted Washington Post has now fallen victim to this trend, who’s left to do actual newsgathering?

Exacerbating the problem is the internet, which seems to have made getting the news out first more important for many media outlets than getting it right. The erroneous UT admissions statistic spread on Twitter, where Fisher’s critics have publicly shamed her with the hashtag “#StayMadAbby.” It even appeared in The New York Times, where it was repeated in a law professor’s column. So much for SPJ’s ethical principles, which also instruct journalists to minimize harm and to acknowledge mistakes and to correct them promptly and prominently.

Covering courts is an important part of being a journalist. Most Americans don’t have the time or training to sift through dense legal documents or to decipher jurists’ jargon. Unfortunately, the Fisher case is just the latest instance in a constant parade of inaccurate court coverage. After CNN and Fox News mistakenly reported in 2012 that the Supreme Court struck down the “individual mandate” part of Obamacare, journalists should have learned to be more careful.

It’s no wonder a September 2015 Gallup poll showed a historic low 40 percent of Americans say they have trust and confidence in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly.

It may also explain why court decisions often stun the public. While judges and juries rely on the facts of a case, the average person relies on sometimes questionable second-hand media reports. It is only natural for the court of law to reach a different decision than the court of public opinion.

The public could be in for another surprise when the Supreme Court announces its decision. Outside of reviewing the high school transcripts and scores of applicants to UT, there is no way of knowing for sure whether Fisher was unfairly discriminated against. The only thing that is certainly “not good enough” and “demonstrably untrue” in this case is the media’s coverage of it.

Grabowski is an associate professor at Adelphi University, where he teaches journalism and media law. He previously worked as a lawyer and journalist.

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