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Summary:

A major error in CNN’s reporting of a landmark Supreme Court decision on Thursday has provided even more ammunition for the ongoing debate over whether it is better to be right rather than first, and whether the scoop as we know it is dead.

The landmark Supreme Court decision on health care that was handed down on Thursday was the kind of news event that everyone knows is coming, like an Apple product launch or the Facebook IPO. In those kinds of cases, there’s an almost overwhelming desire on the part of the media to be first with the definitive statement about what happened, and Twitter has only increased that pressure because it allows anyone to publish instantaneously. CNN seems to have buckled under the strain, since it got the ruling wrong in its initial update — and to make matters worse it was beaten by an 81-year-old blogger. The incident provided even more ammunition (as if we needed any) for the ongoing debate over whether it is better to be right rather than first with the news, and whether the scoop as we know it is dead.

Within minutes of the 193-page decision being delivered to the media, CNN was reporting that the central portion of the legislation — the so-called “individual mandate” — had been struck down. It ran news alerts in the “crawl” at the bottom of the screen, and the news was repeated on Twitter by CNN journalists and the thousands of people who follow them. Even President Obama apparently saw the CNN news and thought that his law had been ruled unconstitutional, until his aides checked SCOTUSblog, a small blog run by a law firm whose lead analyst is an 81-year-old former newspaper reporter.

Was CNN practicing “news as a process”?

CNN was castigated by media insiders and plenty of others for its error, with some saying Twitter made a better and more reliable news source. Soon Gary He had doctored a photo of Harry Truman holding a newspaper reading “Dewey Defeats Truman” — probably one of the most famous examples of a rush to judgment by a media entity in modern history — to show President Obama holding an iPad with CNN’s webpage on it. The news channel continued to update its coverage, and apologized for getting the initial report wrong (something it is apparently now investigating), but it was already too late.

So was CNN wrong to sum up the decision before it had had time to fully decipher it? Before the ruling appeared, the New York Times warned followers on Twitter that it might not be as fast with the news as others, because it planned to spend some time making sense of it first — but then, the New York Times doesn’t have to run a 24-hour news channel and fill all that airtime. For many, the news network’s decision symbolized the downsides of the desire to be first instead of trying to be as correct as possible.

Others argue that CNN was simply trying to do what all media outlets have to do in the digital age, which is to report early and then update a story as quickly as possible. Steve Myers at the Poynter Institute said it was a good example of “news as a process,” in which a story develops as more information is known, rather than being produced as an artifact at a specific time. Journalism professor Jeff Jarvis, however — who has helped popularize the concept — said that CNN was simply wrong, and that news as a process involves reporting whatever is known to be true as soon as it is known.

Jarvis says the desire to have a “scoop” is a form of media narcissism, rather than a desire to truly serve readers, and that the scoop is effectively dead. As I’ve pointed out, thanks to Twitter and the rapid pace of online publishing, the half-life of this kind of scoop continues to dwindle as the news cycle becomes compressed (journalism professor Jay Rosen has written about the different kinds of scoops, some of which he says matter more than others). Rem Rieder of the American Journalism Review noted that Bloomberg was bragging about having beaten Associated Press with the news by just 24 seconds. Says Jarvis:

Journalists must think how they can best add value to information, not how they can most rapidly repeat it. Explaining the story is adding value. Getting it wrong detracts value and devalues credibility.

Some news events are a process, but some aren’t

I think Jarvis is right that “news as a process” is a different beast than what CNN did in this case. In the aftermath of a tornado in Missouri last year, Brian Stelter used his Tumblr blog to detail his reporting on the event, adding information and photos and interviews as he went — and in the same way, Andy Carvin of National Public Radio used Twitter as a verification engine during the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt, posting things he wasn’t sure of and asking his followers for help in arriving at the truth. Both of these are fundamentally different than reporting on a Supreme Court decision that everyone knows is coming, and which everyone has a copy of at the same time.

CNN has been criticized in the past for waiting too long to report things — including the death of Osama bin Laden last year, which most of Twitter knew was a reality (thanks in part to a retweet by Brian Stelter) long before Wolf Blitzer announced it on television. Perhaps that spooked the network and made it a little too eager to jump to conclusions. Or maybe its legal-affairs analyst just got it wrong and it was up on the screen before anyone could stop it. Rightly or wrongly, many viewers and media analysts expect CNN to be a bit better with its rapid analysis than an 81-year-old blogger or someone on Twitter.

In a sense, I think Steve Myers is right when he says that it’s all about the expectations of your intended audience: if you are Andy Carvin and a news story is breaking halfway around the world, in a region engulfed in chaos — or if you are Brian Stelter in the aftermath of a tornado — readers or viewers are probably willing to cut you a lot of slack when it comes to the facts. But when you have a decision printed on paper and all you have to do is read and understand it, they are probably going to be less forgiving.

As the news cycle continues to dwindle and the life-span of a scoop gets shorter and shorter, the pressure on media outlets like CNN is only going to intensify, and they are going to have to decide whether they would rather run the risk of being spectacularly wrong — or be satisfied with being slow but confident that they are right.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Yan Arief Purwanto and Petteri Sulonen and Gary He of Insider Images

  1. “So was CNN wrong to sum up the decision before it had had time to fully decipher it?”

    Yes. The answer is in reporting news versus interpreting the news. CNN reported correctly that SCOTUS found the Commerce Clause does not support mandatory insurance. That part was fine, that part is news. From that CNN concluded that SCOTUS had ruled against Obamacare. That part is opinion. They should have had an on hand “expert” to interview and give his/her opinion what the ruling meant. Maybe taking time well spent, CNN would have noticed there was another part of the ruling vis-a-vis taxes and fees.

    That’s the problem with news nowadays and why people are so turned off. It is the confusion in reporting real facts, substituting opinions, jokes, puns and catchy lines from affable and friendly anchors and reporters, with only air between their two ears and an inability to write their own copy.

    For real reporting reference Cronkite, Huntley, Brinkley, McNeil, Lehrer. Watch an old clip and see the difference

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    1. Manchesterian Saturday, June 30, 2012

      This si expected of FOX, CNN though has more egg on its face than FOX does. In this moment, CNN outed itself and is now completely without a mask.

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  2. Definitely agree that the value of the scoop has dissipated in this day and age (unless of course you’re a blog and can brag about beating a mainstream outlet on something big, in which case it’s often held up as further evidence of the power of new media).

    Since this story mentions, on multiple occasions, CNN being beaten by an 81-year-old blogger, here’s some additional context.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/for-scotusblog-one-goal-beat-everybody-and-break-news-of-health-care-ruling/2012/06/27/gJQA1TZp7V_story.html

    Two main points of interest from that story that apply to the discussion here:

    1) The 81-year-old blogger was hardly doing it on his own. He had four lawyers on hand to help decipher the ruling (which also raises the question of how many lawyers did CNN have on hand).

    2) He and his blog were fueled by the same misplaced ambition for the scoop that afflicts mainstream outlets like CNN. For instance, this quote:

    “Our number one ambition is to beat everybody. It’s a source of pride. I may need to get some sharper elbows to make sure we get it first.”

    And from his publisher:

    “The TV people out front literally won’t have it for about two minutes. After they hand it to Lyle, I expect 25 seconds after that, we’ll have it on the live blog. I would be surprised if the Associated Press can beat us.”

    It’s actually kind of disgusting how the desire for the scoop has people literally counting the extra seconds or minutes that it takes to get their hands on the document depending on where they are standing. But where SCOTUSblog and outlets such as the NYT (which you mentioned) deserve credit is that when it came down to it, they put getting it right before getting it first. Of course, some of that is also made possible by the format in which they were disseminating. A pause on a live blog or on Twitter is less awkward than silence on live TV.

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  3. danielhorowitz Saturday, June 30, 2012

    I think the best option for CNN in this case is to recognize that scotusblog is the expert in the field and let them decipher and then report what scotusblog thinks.

    Alternative is to hire their own experts, but they chose not to do this and it’s unlikely to be sustainable in the long run.

    Individuals, and small groups of individuals will be breaking news faster and more accurately, and CNN can’t really compete with this.

    The opportunity is to aggregate and curate from everyone everywhere.

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  4. Great post Mathew. Scoop is about reporting information that nobody else would have come up with. Not rushing to report information (inaccurately) that everyone else will have access to within the hour.

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    1. Thanks, Cybele — well said.

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