CNN, Fox botch Supreme Court health-care decision in latest media misstep


A screengrab from CNN.com on June 28. The network erroneously reported that the Supreme Court had struck down the individual mandate for health care. (CNN)
June 28, 2012

Maybe it’s time for the news media to take a deep breath.

In the wake of Thursday’s breathless reporting, and mis-reporting, of the Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act, a timeout might help. Although the court upheld the law, it was hard to know that as the news broke on TV and online Thursday morning.

CNN and Fox News left viewers, including President Obama, confused with reports that suggested the court had ruled unconstitutional a key part of the law — the requirement that individuals buy health insurance. Those reports quickly made their way to other news outlets and were spread far and wide via Twitter.

Except the information was wrong. Within minutes, the full story emerged.

The initial reports were based on just the first part of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.’s opinion for the majority. The court had indeed ruled that the individual mandate was unconstitutional, but only under one provision of the Constitution, the commerce clause. A full reading of the chief justice’s 59-page opinion showed that the court upheld the mandate, under Congress’s authority to impose taxes.

CNN, which also tweeted the “news” and posted it on its Web site, said in a statement Thursday that it “regrets that it didn’t wait to report out the full and complete opinion regarding the mandate. We made a correction within a few minutes and apologize for the error.”

Fox, meanwhile, said it had no regrets. “Our job is to share the news as we learn it,” said Michael Clemente, executive vice president of news-editorial at Fox. “As we were hearing it, and as we were reading it, we let our viewers know about it.” He added, “You don’t have to wait until the conclusion of the Yankees game to give the score.”

The Supreme Court fiasco is the latest in a string of recent media misfires on major stories. NPR apologized last year for incorrectly reporting that then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) had died in a mass shooting in Tucson (she was badly wounded but survived). Several news outlets jumped the gun last fall by prematurely reporting the death of former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno (he died about 12 hours after the report first appeared on a student-run Web site). CNN reported on Sept. 11, 2009, that shots had been fired at a Coast Guard boat on the Potomac River — only to learn that the episode was a training exercise. Reuters and Fox had picked up the story.

In a news environment that is hyper-competitive and highly interconnected, inaccurate reports travel just as fast as solid ones. NPR, for example, retweeted CNN’s inaccurate tweet about Thursday’s court ruling, only to tweet about five minutes later that CNN was correcting its report. The Washington Post’s The Fix blog also retweeted inaccurate reports from CNN and Fox News. Public radio host Diane Rehm told listeners that the mandate had been found unconstitutional; she quickly corrected the story and apologized.

The media’s misstep at the Supreme Court is another demonstration that “context, nuance and accuracy matter” more than speed, said Michael Norman, a journalism professor at New York University. “What’s the value in getting part of the story out at 10 a.m. and getting it wrong, instead of getting it at 10:06 a.m. and getting it right?” he asked.

Although news organizations promptly corrected their reports, Norman said, something was lost in the intervening moments: “credibility.”

“The lesson is, first get it right, then get it first,” said Jim Farley, vice president of news and programming for WTOP (103.5 FM), the all-news radio station in the District. “No one remembers who got a story first. Everyone remembers who got it wrong. If I’m second on a story, no one will hold it over my head.”

The president watched feeds of multiple cable news channels and was confused as the news was incorrectly reported by CNN and Fox, according to senior administration officials, and correctly reported by CNBC and MSNBC. Within minutes, White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler and Chief of Staff Jacob J. Lew came in to clarify the court’s decision.

Obama then hugged Ruemmler.

Ironically, MSNBC may have averted a reporting pitfall thanks to difficulties getting on the air. As the initial reports broke, the network had trouble switching to reporter Pete Williams, who was stationed outside the courthouse. Network anchors filled the time instead — and then offered viewers an accurate summary of what the court had decided.

David Nakamura contributed to this report.

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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