Should you be first or right with the news? Yes

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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

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