At a time when being technologically savvy can make or break a news organization, the conundrum of getting the story first and ensuring it’s reported correctly is difficult with the temptation to Tweet, blog and report on live TV.
Watching media giants fumble with a massive story like the Supreme Court’s health care ruling and witnessing the scrutiny they received for it online clearly illustrated this point.
On the television screen, CNN reported that the Supreme Court had shot down the individual health insurance mandate.
Online Bloomberg and the AP reported it was upheld.
News outlets continued to post differing accounts of the ruling shortly after Chief Justice John G. Roberts began reading the opinion just after 10 a.m.
Some members of Congress ran with the false information to their Twitter accounts, which were quickly deleted, but documented by Politwoops. ABC news and Huffington Post blogger Sam Stein reported that the president himself first believed initial erroneous reports.
Meanwhile contributors to the SCOTUSblog live feed noted the complicated nature of the court’s decision and gave themselves time to get it right:
“10:07 Amy Howe: We have health care opinion.
10:08 Amy Howe: Parsing it asap.
Amy Howe: The individual mandate survives as a tax.
10:09 Amy Howe: It’s very complicated, so we’re still figuring it out.”
SCOTUSblog’s analysis of the court’s opinion began 11 minutes later. CNN’s Breaking News account issued a correction 13 minutes after its initial false report, later releasing an official correction, saying that it “regrets that it didn’t wait to report out the full and complete opinion regarding the mandate.”
The confusion arose because the first part of the opinion said the mandate violated the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. A few pages later, the court upheld the mandate as a tax.
The 24-hour news cycle creates a super-competitive environment, when the fundamentals of journalism can be forgotten. While posting the story first is nice, making sure it’s done accurately should be the focus.
Thursday’s coverage of the health-care decision showed what happens when reporting is done based on initial bits of information without fact-checking, Fred Brown, vice chair of the Society of Professional Journalism’s ethics committee, said.
Despite corrections made by the news organizations, Brown said their credibility will suffer because “it shows that their first consideration is having the story first,” leaving their audience wary of anything they report later.
Though it feels great to get a scoop, Thursday’s events prove it’s not always worth it.