Thursday, November 03, 2005

Initial News Coverage of Alito

Initial news coverage of the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito frequently repeated the nickname of "Scalito" to compare the nominee to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Web based news sources were especially prone to use this nickname in articles appearing on Monday, October 31, the day President Bush announced the nomination of Judge Alito. Print papers made less, but still substantial, use of the term in their Tuesday coverage. In the small number of Monday print articles, "Scalito" was used about as much as in the much more extensive Tuesday coverage.

In the second day of coverage, however, news articles made much less use of this nickname. Web article use fell below 10% by Tuesday with print articles falling to under 7% on Wednesday, their second day of substantial coverage. Web use of the term fell to a mere 2.8% by Wednesday.

This illustrates the problem of initial interpretation in news coverage and raises the question of the impact such coverage has on public understanding of Judge Alito (or other newly visible figures.) As a memorable phrase, "Scalito" adds color to a news story while also conveying the writer's fundamental point: "(Alito) has been called "Scalito" for a judicial philosophy akin to that of Justice Antonin Scalia" (Steve Lash, The Houston Chronicle, May 26, 2000, the earliest published reference I could find.) To the extent this phrase is an accurate short hand for a complex argument it serves to inform the public in much the same way that saying Judge Alito is "conservative" or "right-leaning" or "a strict constructionist" might also do.

However, there is another element to this, and that is the tie to a figure (Scalia) who carries not only informational but emotional connotations. It is unlikely that many average citizens can cite in any detail at all the opinions expressed by Justice Scalia, but both liberals and conservatives may have a stronger emotional response to him as a symbol of judicial conservatism. Because this emotional response is quite available for politically aware citizens, even if the legal details are absent, then the "Scalito" nickname may serve to orient readers to Alito in ways that less personalized descriptions of his legal views may fail to do. If so, we might expect readers exposed to the "Scalito" reference to form stronger and more extreme views (positive or negative) of Judge Alito than they would had they only read about his opinions or his legal philosophy.

The news media relied substantially on the "Scalito" shorthand in their initial reporting but have moved away from it dramatically in subsequent reporting. This may reflect the pressure of deadlines. When the nomination was first announced, few reporters could have had the time or the background knowledge to produce an overview of Alito's judicial writtings and so the immediately available shorthand of "Scalito" was used to convey the general orientation of the Judge. With more time in an aditional news cycle the reporting turned to other (one might hope more detailed) reports of Alito's past rulings and philosophy and the use of the nickname was dropped. (Or it could just be pack journalism at work on day one of the story.)

None the less, the use of shorthand labels such as this may affect readers' first impressions of new public figures. In this case, the "Scalito" moniker would seem likely to both inform readers as to Judge Alito's philosophy but also to increase polarization of views because liberals might be expected to react more negatively to Alito when he is explicitly identified with Scalia, while conservatives might welcome this as a sign that the new nominee is what had been hoped for. Initial polling does in fact suggest that opinion towards Alito is a bit more polarized than for either Miers or Roberts, though it is impossible to know how much to attribute this to the "Scalito" nickname.

Subsequent coverage has dramatically reduced the use of the "Scalito" term. Whether the public learns more from this new and more detailed coverage, or is more shaped by initial impressions is an interesting question.

(Data for the figure are from a Google News search of web news sources using "Alito and Scalito" or "Alito and Not Scalito" for each of the three days. The U.S. and Major papers counts are from Lexis/Nexis searches using the same search criteria. The "US News Sources" include 374 publications, though many of these are not daily papers and would not have been available in the search done on November 3. The "Major Papers" include 89 daily publications, a modest number of which are outside the US.) Posted by Picasa