The U.S. Supreme Court's Characterizations of the Press: An Empirical Study

41 Pages Posted: 19 Feb 2021 Last revised: 16 Oct 2021

See all articles by RonNell Andersen Jones

RonNell Andersen Jones

University of Utah - S.J. Quinney College of Law

Sonja West

University of Georgia School of Law

Date Written: February 17, 2021


The erosion of constitutional norms in the United States is at the center of an urgent national debate. Among the most crucial of these issues is the fragile and deteriorating relationship between the press and the government. While scholars have responded with sophisticated examinations of legislators’ and the President’s characterizations of the news media, one branch of government has received little scrutiny—the U.S. Supreme Court. This gap in the scholarship is remarkable in light of the Court’s role as the very institution entrusted with safeguarding the rights of the press. This paper presents the findings of the first comprehensive empirical examination of the Court’s depictions of the press. We tracked every reference to the press by a U.S. Supreme Court Justice in the Court’s opinions since 1784. We coded these references to the press (broadly defined by the Justices themselves) for the presence of common frames and for whether the frame was conveyed with a positive, negative, or neutral tone. The results of our study reveal troubling trends at the Court, with widespread implications for any discussion of contemporary press freedom. We find that there has been a stark deterioration in both the quantity and quality of the Court’s depictions of the press across a variety of measures. Our data show that the Justices are now less likely to talk about the press than they were in the past, and that, when they do, it is more often in a negative light. At this crucial moment, when we have seen the risks of executive and legislative branch attacks on the press, our study finds that the U.S. Supreme Court is not pushing back. The study also reveals a substantial correlation between ideology and the Justices’ attitudes toward the press. It likewise illuminates the press-characterizing behaviors of the most and least press-friendly Justices of all time and of the currently sitting Justices, providing insights into patterns that might be expected in the years to come.

Keywords: Media, U.S. Supreme Court, press freedom, communications, First Amendment

Suggested Citation

Andersen Jones, RonNell and West, Sonja, The U.S. Supreme Court's Characterizations of the Press: An Empirical Study (February 17, 2021). University of Georgia School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2021-01, University of Utah College of Law Research Paper No. 419, Available at SSRN: or

RonNell Andersen Jones (Contact Author)

University of Utah - S.J. Quinney College of Law ( email )

383 S. University Street
Salt Lake City, UT 84112-0730
United States
801-587-8756 (Phone)

Sonja West

University of Georgia School of Law ( email )

225 Herty Drive
Athens, GA 30602
United States
(706) 542-5145 (Phone)
(706) 542-5556 (Fax)


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