On Thursday, June 28, the United States Supreme Court issued its ruling on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. All major news outlets devoted substantial resources to reporting the story, which has broad economic, political and social implications. Two of the most important news outlets, CNN and Fox News, got the story spectacularly wrong.
CNN got it wronger, longer — partly because it was more efficient at quickly distributing the story across its blogs and social media outlets, but also because it was more cautious about correcting its error for fear of making a second mistake.
Tom Goldstein has produced a spectacular investigation into the circumstances that led to both CNN and Fox News reporting the story incorrectly – and left the White House without access to the correct information for some time. If you’re a media geek like me, you’ll want to find the time to read the entire report, “We’re getting wildly differing assessments,” over at SCOTUSblog.
Goldstein reports that the errors that first led to the incorrect reports were avoidable. The story was correctly reported by the wire services’ Supreme Court reporters. NPR and The New York Times both decided to sit out the uncertainty of the first few minutes after the decision was released. NBC took the time to actually read the document before reporting its contents. CBS had an experienced lawyer on hand, he and the CBS reporter both read the document together on the air, and reported its key ruling correctly. C-SPAN simply put the SCOTUSblog Live Blog on the air.
Why did CNN and Fox both get it wrong?
- Both CNN and Fox treated the decision as a breathless “breaking news” event, despite the fact that everyone knew when the opinion would be released, and the implications of the ruling wouldn’t take effect until 2014. (Ironically, Bloomberg was the first to report the ruling, just 52 seconds after copies of the decision were handed out to members of the press.)
- Legal rulings are hardly ever simple and straight-forward, and yet neither of the two networks had sufficient resources in place to quickly analyze and process potential complications in the ruling itself. Other networks had experienced lawyers or Supreme Court reporters on hand to review the ruling; both CNN and Fox left the job of reading the document and interpreting its meaning up to producers.
- CNN and Fox both compounded these errors by not placing more faith in the consensus view of the wire reports, which were based on Supreme Court reporters who were very experienced in breaking news reporting, and who got the story right.
- Once the incorrect reports are posted, first by CNN and then Fox News, a self-reinforcing feedback loop took hold and compounded the error, since both networks’ belief that they were correct was reinforced by seeing the equally incorrect reporting from the other network.
- CNN in particular further compounded the error by very efficiently distributing the breaking news headlines across its on-air reporting, its web site, and its social media streams. Ironically, this efficiency caused CNN’s incorrect reporting to be even more widely distributed, and it took longer for CNN to correct the story. And the network had no plan to help its bloggers and social media teams update and correct the information.
- Five minutes after the first incorrect reports, CNN was alone in seriously suggesting that the mandate might have been invalidated. The network’s on-air team began to hedge their reporting once they saw that there were conflicting reports about the ruling. But by 10:14, producers should have told them not to claim that there were wildly conflicting reports about whether the mandate had been invalidated, since the only reports saying this at this point were its own.
- Fox was saved further embarrassment thanks in great part to its co-anchor Megyn Kelly. Kelly had previously served as the network’s Supreme Court correspondent, knows the Court very well, and decided to monitor the SCOTUSblog Live Blog while reporting the story. As soon as she saw the Live Blog report the story differently from what she had been told by her producers, she stated on the air that there were conflicting reports. And, because Fox’s social media efforts were less tightly integrated than CNN’s, the network had less mis-information to correct.
CNN got the story wronger, longer. There have been reports that the embarrassment has led to finger-pointing and recriminations inside the CNN newsroom. But, according to Goldstein, Fox “generally views Thursday morning’s “transparent” broadcasting of information as it developed in real time as exactly how its reporting should function.”
Which do you think is the right response? Is it more important to report news in realtime, than to wait and report it correctly?