Opinion

Jack Shafer

Serving up the Supreme Court dough before it’s baked

By Jack Shafer
June 28, 2012

Go ahead and ridicule CNN and Fox News Channel for fumbling the Supreme Court ruling (pdf) in the Affordable Care Act case today by reporting that the law had been struck down. If news organizations are going to crow about their breaking news scoops – Bloomberg News is bragging that it beat Reuters to the court’s decision by 12 seconds – they must submit to vigorous fanny-whackings whenever they perpetrate “Dewey Defeats Truman”-style mistakes. Tweets from the Huffington Post’s politics section, Time, and NPR got it wrong, too.

At least CNN and Fox only got it wrong one way. The Chicago Sun-Times erred at least four ways, posting to one Web page last night its preliminary coverage and headlines – ”Supreme Court strikes down health care law,” “Supreme Court waters down health care law,” and “Supreme Court upholds health care law,” and “Supreme Court XXXX Obama health law.” To be fair to the Sun-Times, every news organization pre-bakes as much coverage as it can when covering court decisions, elections, conventions and other scheduled news events. They write obituaries of the famous and old before they die. Pre-baking isn’t restricted to journalists. Even President Barack Obama stockpiled multiple speeches to cover three possible outcomes, he’s just lucky that he didn’t give the wrong one.

I suppose you could toss out my preconception theory and blame the errors on the continual acceleration of the news and the increasing pressure to get it first. But then you’d have to explain why Bloomberg News, Reuters, the Associated Press, and Dow Jones got it right inside the same instant news cycle.

Still, all journalism is vulnerable to error, so I forgive CNN and Fox for their breaking news transgressions. When the fog of breaking news descends, journalists often go blind or see stuff that isn’t there, a point I previously made after rewinding and reviewing the breaking coverage of the Mumbai massacre and the killing of Osama bin Laden. The early news accounts of those events disagreed violently with one another, in part, because of the chaos and the limited access to the scene. But it was also inherently flawed by preconceptions that journalists bring to every story. Reporters carry wads of pre-baked story dough to almost every breaking news story, whether it be a terrorist attack on a city or the scheduled release of a Supreme Court decision.

Obviously journalists must tote some preconceptions if only because blank slates make awful reporters. The problem comes when reporters become trapped by their preconceptions. Today, every news organization in the land knew that the Supreme Court’s decision was not limited to the simple binary of upheld or ruled unconstitutional, as the itchy fingers at the Chicago Sun-Times proved with their blunder. I’m sure that the reporters at CNN and Fox knew that, too. Perhaps they were overinvested in preconceptions about the outcome and jumped on the first confirmation they saw. That miscue was as understandable as it was avoidable, as my Reuters colleague Erin Geiger Smith tweeted shortly after the CNN and Fox screwup: “Was easy to get this wrong if you weren’t careful. Opinion headnote gives the commerce clause note first, tax on next page.”

Up-to-the-second news has a way of crumbling in your hands if you don’t handle it carefully – and sometimes even if you do. This is one of the reasons an Associated Press editor told his troops to stop “taunting” the competition for its goof on social-media sites: Stop smirking, it could happen to you, buster. And the right thing to do when it happens to you (or you happen to it, which is a better description) is to do what CNN did: Publish a prompt and unequivocal correction. Fox, on the other hand, issued a statement claiming that its rolling, on-air update sufficed to correct the record, even if the error appeared in a Chyron.

Which network would you rather watch?

******

Best Tweet of the day: “Roger Goodell just fined the AP $20,000 for taunting CNN and Fox,” by K Smith. Don’t bother writing to me at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. Instead, shoot a tweet at my Twitter handle. Suppress your preconceptions so you don’t make any errors. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTOS: Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange as a screen displays the healthcare decision, June 28, 2012. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Comments
10 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

I’d rather watch Reuters. CBS tv news also good.

Posted by screenamefornow | Report as abusive
 

No matter how many times Fox gets it wrong, there will always be a coterie of True Believers who still lap it up.

Posted by borisjimbo | Report as abusive
 

JacK You fail to mention the ideological investment that Fox Newshad in the law being struck down entirely. As to not having time – they had the same amount of time to dwell on the law and its aspects as the Justices had. A year. x m.r

Posted by MIKEROL | Report as abusive
 

FOX creates news. The Supreme Court ruling re. Affordable Care Act happened to be a case when they created news with the wrong headline.

Posted by SanPa | Report as abusive
 

Of course the court had no idea when the ruling was written how it may be read? They did not know that talking head Cable channels would be racing to be the first to declare heads or tails….. and they did not play the game hoping for the outcome they received? Yeah…the court was political a few minutes before the decision… but after that they were aces.

Posted by Farkel44 | Report as abusive
 

“blank slates make awful reporters??”

blank slates make HONEST reporters. if that’s ‘awful’ maybe i’m getting my news from the wrong website.

Posted by posthu | Report as abusive
 

These two goofs really speak to the professionalism of both FOX and CNN. Both have failed their audiences but in different ways; FOX has a global history of illicitly ferreting out news before its safe to print or broadcast; their speakers are not worth watching and I no longer do so. CNN is simply a failing source due to lack of ability to compete. My guess is that they will soon be subsumed by guess who: FOX. My advice to journalists of all stripes: Get the facts clearly understood before opening your mug!

Posted by ClaudeM | Report as abusive
 

These two goofs really speak to the professionalism of both FOX and CNN. Both have failed their audiences but in different ways; FOX has a global history of illicitly ferreting out news before its safe to print or broadcast; their speakers are not worth watching and I no longer do so. CNN is simply a failing source due to lack of ability to compete. My guess is that they will soon be subsumed by guess who: FOX. My advice to journalists of all stripes: Get the facts clearly understood before opening your mug!

Posted by ClaudeM | Report as abusive
 

“Even President Barack Obama stockpiled multiple speeches to cover three possible outcomes, he’s just lucky that he didn’t give the wrong one.”

I doubt that was just luck.

Posted by RobinInSanDiego | Report as abusive
 

So why don’t journalists, which in my mind do not include any of the entertainers at Fox, set professional standards for the profession, if they consider it a profession? All healthcare professions police themselves fairly effectively, as do other professions such as law, accounting, etc. Journalists complain continually about their decline, though repeated polls show an incredible unmet demand for quality news reporting. If journalists had standards, such as separating comment from news reporting and clearly labelling it as commentary; defining appropriate means and methods of news gathering; establishing professional credentialing of journalists, etc., then maybe we would not be in danger of losing a free and undoctored press. So journalists, do us all a favor, and stop whining to us and clean up what was once a profession.

Posted by sylvan | Report as abusive
 

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