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Journalists Greenhouse and Lithwick Discuss How the Internet Has Affected Supreme Court Reporting

Even just two years ago, Linda Greenhouse ’78 MSL had an admittedly old-fashioned approach to reporting on the U.S. Supreme Court. When a ruling was issued, typically around 10:30 a.m., Greenhouse would take the written materials and sit alone in a room until she’d read every word. Then she would return to the Washington, D.C., bureau of The New York Times and proceed to write up her story for the 6 p.m. deadline.

Now, when Dahlia Lithwick is writing about a Supreme Court decision, she starts getting e-mails at 11 a.m. asking when the story will be online.

About 70 people gathered at Yale Law School Oct. 26 to hear the journalists discuss their experiences covering the Court at “Writing About The Supreme Court, A Discussion With Dahlia Lithwick and Linda Greenhouse.” Lithwick, senior editor and legal correspondent for Slate, and Greenhouse, Knight Distinguished Journalist-in-Residence at Yale Law School, discussed the Supreme Court press corps’ methods, protocol, and taboos and offered insight into the justices’ personalities, styles, and shifting group dynamics. The event was sponsored by the Information Society Project at Yale Law School and the Knight Law and Media Program, and made possible by the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism at Yale University.

A lot has changed in media coverage of the Court in the past two years—changes that have much to do with the expansion of online reporting and commentary by non-traditional media, said both women.

“Filing early and constantly is terrible and inimical to thoughtful coverage,” said Greenhouse, who covered the Supreme Court for The New York Times between 1978 and 2008 and now writes a biweekly column on law for the paper.

The real-time Tweets and blogosphere coverage of Supreme Court personalities and decisions has definitely ratcheted up the pressure on accredited Supreme Court media to file sooner, said Lithwick, and that kind of pressure will only increase.

“We are a wonderfully old-fashioned press corps, a very scholarly press corps. We are basically a bunch of constitutional law professors with a big ‘junior’ badge,” said Lithwick. But knowing that decisions will be posted, dissected, and analyzed immediately after they are handed down creates an unhealthy pressure to file a story before it’s fully thought through, she said—something that’s become commonplace in political coverage but is much riskier on the Supreme Court beat.

“My answer to it was to try and add context to the case,” said Greenhouse. “I saw that as a challenge of adding value.”

Journalists aren’t the only ones coming to terms with the impact of the 24/7 news cycle.

“Justices are really grappling with the Internet right now,” said Lithwick. “There’s a sense of being instantly judged. … They all have their clerks print out the blogs.”

“Do you think this has had an impact on jurisprudence?” asked Greenhouse.

“I think it has,” replied Lithwick.