Supreme Court Headline Ethics: Our News Media, Misleading Rather Than Informing

The Supreme Court handed down its decision in Arizona v. United States today. This was the eagerly awaited case that addresses the issue of what the states can do to stem the tide of illegal immigration without encroaching on Federal authority, when Federal authority appears unwilling to enforce the nation’s immigration laws.

The decision was complex. Three provisions of the law were found to be preempted by Federal law and thus struck down, but they were provisions that have seldom been discussed in teh news media during the year-long controversy over the Arizona measure. The fourth provision covered in the opinion, the core of the law and the aspect of it that Democrats and illegal immigration advocates called “racial profiling,” was upheld, but with a caveat: if it was enforced in a fashion that violated Constitutional rights or raised preemption issues, it could be overturned later.

Meanwhile, after being smeared by the Obama Administration’s allies as politically-driven and without integrity, the split among the Justices defied the slander of its critics. Chief Justice Roberts joined the liberal wing of the Court to overturn the three provisions of the law.  Arch conservative and Bush appointee Justice Alito concurred with the banning of one of the three provisions. Hispanic Justice Sotomayor voted to uphold the papers-checking provision that the man who appointed her, President Obama, falsely described as allowing police to “harass” Hispanic citizens who were “eating ice cream” with their kids.

In short, like most Supreme Court decisions, the final opinions defied one-line analysis. This means that honest, ethical, objective and competent news sources shouldn’t and wouldn’t try to summarize the substance of the decision in a headline that was sure to mislead a reader who didn’t take the time to read the rest of the story (or, in truth, the actual opinions themselves, since the journalists who write stories about court cases generally do a terrible job). Yet here is sampling, gleaned from a Google search, of what the various publications, news networks and websites offered as headings. Judge for yourself how objective and fair they are:

  • Supreme Court Rejects Part of Arizona Immigration Law (NY Times)
  • US Supreme Court upholds key Arizona immigration clause (BBC)
  • Supreme Court sides with US in Arizona immigration case (CNN)
  • Supreme Court strikes down key parts of Arizona immigration law (LA Times)
  • Supreme Court reins in Arizona immigration law, but leaves key provision in place (Fox)
  • Supreme Court rejects much of Arizona immigration law (Washington Post)
  • High court strikes down key parts of Arizona immigration law (MSNBC)
  • Supreme Court upholds key part of Arizona immigration law (ABC)
  • Supreme Court upholds key portion of Arizona’s controversial immigration law (Detroit Free Press)
  • Supreme Court strikes down much of Arizona immigration law, but upholds key provision ( NJ Star-Ledger)
  • Arizona Cops Can Check for Papers, Supreme Court Rules (ABC New)
  • Supreme Court strikes down most of Arizona immigration law (Chicago Sun-Times)
  •  High Court upholds key part of Arizona immigration law (Reuters)
  • Arizona Illegal-Immigration Law Gets Mixed Top Court Decision (Bloomberg)

It’s hard to believe that these are all about the same decision, isn’t it? CNN,  the Times, the Washington Post, the Sun-Times, and of course, MSNBC have headlines that actively spin the decision as a victory for the Obama Administration and a defeat for Arizona. The Detroit Free Press, ABC, Fox and Reuters make it sound like Arizona prevailed. All were a bit true, but none of these were fair or accurate, and reflected either an interpretation by the headline writer or the desire to spin the results. These organizations know that most people only read the headlines. To write a headline that misrepresents the facts of a news story story is active deceit.

One of the headlines on the list meets journalistic ethical standards, in my view: Bloomberg’s Arizona Illegal-Immigration Law Gets Mixed Top Court Decision. It really doesn’t pretend to explain anything about the decision. It tells readers that to understand what the decision was, they have to read the news story.

And that’s exactly what they should do.

(If you want to read about Arizona v. US, the best place to start is probably here.)


Facts: Jurist

Source: Volokh Conspiracy

Graphic: CIF Watch

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at



5 thoughts on “Supreme Court Headline Ethics: Our News Media, Misleading Rather Than Informing

  1. One example of a misleading headline, related to a Supreme Court decision, is this:

    “Supreme Court rules juvenile life without parole cruel and unusual”

    But from the body of the article:

    “The Supreme Court on Monday limited the use of life terms in prison for murderers under 18, ruling that judges must consider the defendant’s youth and the nature of the crime before putting him behind bars with no hope for parole.”

    The headline would lead one to believe that the court had struck down life sentences for juveniles on its face. It did not. It did not even hold that Alabama and Arkansas may never sentence juveniles to life without parole, while Florida and New York could. It did not even hold that the particular petitioners in this case can never be sentenced to life without parole for the crimes they were convicted of. It held that the mandatory life sentence is unconstitutional, and therefore a judge must weigh all the mitigating and aggravating factors before deciding what the sentence is. And from what I read of the cases, there are plenty of mitigating factors.

  2. You beat me to it: I was going to write about this, but as i was taking up my (virtual) pen i saw your comprehensive piece and decided just to argue with you.

    You’re right, of course, that it’s impossible to summarize the decision in a headline. Still, that’s what newspapers, on-line and in print, good and bad, left and right, do.

    While all the news organizations you list are often guilty of spin, in this case I think it’s an unfair label. Take you and me, for example, neither one of us notorious spinners. You think the “core” of the law is what the Court upheld, I think the core is the part they struck down. Either way, I agree that only Bloomberg got it right.

    • I agree with your points, Bob, and agree that the Bloomberg headline, compared to all the others shown, is “optimal.”

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