Getting news fast and wrong

By Katy Culver, assistant professor

As today’s monumental Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act unfolded, viewers and readers relying on CNN and Fox News got the wrong information.

They didn’t get a different interpretation or a variation on a theme. They got the 100 percent opposite of the truth. The ACA individual mandate was upheld. These viewers and readers were told it was overturned.

This violates the central idea, the very basis, of journalism ethics: Seek the truth and report it. More importantly, it raises a critical question: If journalism in a social and digital media age cannot get it right, how can it claim the legitimacy and authority it needs to survive?

ACA updates on twitter

To be clear and narrow, other big players in news got the story right, including the Associated Press, Reuters, the New York Times and other news networks. The offsetting alerts on Twitter are telling.

Also, many people were awaiting the historic decision and straining to learn the fate of so-called “Obamacare,” posting hype in advance across social media.

New York Times Assistant Managing Editor Jim Roberts warned readers ahead of time that his newsroom would be taking time to understand the decision before tweeting. Newsrooms were primed to meet the needs of an audience that wanted word and wanted it immediately. When news broke, the errors felt amplified because of massive amounts of retweeting (when one Twitter user republishes another user’s message).

Finally, the digital environment surrounding the announcement was intense and chaotic, as shown by this screen capture of the #SCOTUS hashtag 15 minutes before the decision (hashtags, beginning with #, are used on Twitter to group messages together, as in #SCOTUS for Supreme Court of the United States). The stream moves so quickly it cannot be read.

These factors added to the swirling winds of speed that became a tornado that flattened CNN and Fox News, as well as those who retweeted and reposted their announcements. We’ve had other accuracy tornado touchdowns in recent years:

 

But those incidents had some measure of explanation. NPR relied on two governmental sources, a checking mechanism many would have found sufficient. The ruling in the Braun case was worded that the appeal was upheld, and in usual court cases, upheld on appeal means the original ruling – in this case Braun’s suspension – stands. And Mubarek’s fate is tied up in a swirl of misinformation and political wrangling.

None of these organizations should be excused for getting it wrong, but at least the audience can see the “how.”

CNN and Fox News ran the wrong story for one and only one reason: They wanted to be first more than they wanted to be right. They did not take the time to read or listen to the decision. They ceded credibility at the precise moment they need it most.

Attempts to walk back the inaccuracy tried to suggest the ruling was confusing. It was not. The issues in the case were indeed complex, but news organizations had months to parse the arguments and learn how to interpret the syllabus (a summary that precedes text of a decision). They had access to experts, predictions, scenarios and questions. The syllabus was crystal clear … to anyone who took a few minutes to read it.

And therein lies the danger for the future of some of our most noted news organizations. Other entities took the time to get it right and did. SCOTUSblog, a newer source for Supreme Court news, is not affiliated with any news organization but often provides the most in-depth and accurate coverage of the court. Its staff takes the time to understand issues, arguments and rulings in all their complexity and report or opine with precision.

The SCOTUSblog live coverage got the ruling right and broke the news at the same time as CNN. They weren’t part of the media ecosystem when CNN was founded, but they’re definitely adding to journalistic coverage.

Journalism will survive the fragmentation of media and audience. It has survived far worse, including attacks ranging from censorship to physical assault.

But the question is whether that journalism will be practiced in the newsrooms we have known to date. Every time one of those organizations violates its foundational ethics, as CNN and Fox News did so spectacularly today, it kills off a reason audiences come to it in the first place.

Journalists have an ethical obligation to be accurate. They have a fiscal interest to retain their credibility and differentiate themselves from the waves of information, misinformation and disinformation that pound digital media shores.

No one outside a newsroom cares whether Reuters ran an alert 30 seconds before AP.

So when news organizations need to get facts right out of both ethical duty and fiscal self-interest, why on earth would they not spend two minutes reading one of the most important court decisions of our age? That question needs an answer at CNN and any other newsroom that hopes to weather the challenge of smaller, more nimble and motivated competitors like SCOTUSblog.

Today was an object lesson in how attending to speed and competition before accuracy and precision will damage journalism in both the short and long runs.