By John Ensslin, 2011-12 SPJ President | July 17th, 2012
It’s said that speed kills. It certainly can in journalism when accuracy is on the line.
I say this as someone who was a notorious slow writer when I first started as a reporter.
While my colleagues would breeze in and out of the newsroom, I’d be sitting there in quiet desperation trying to make deadline.
Fortunately, I got quicker with practice as time went on. But then newsroom clock sped up. Of all the seismic changes that occurred in the profession over the last five years, I think none have been more profound than the speed at which journalism is practiced.
To paraphrase the Albert Brooks character in the movie “Broadcast News”: I type it here and it comes out there.
The perils of practicing this hyper form of journalism were of full and awful display recently when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its long awaited landmark ruling upholding the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act.
You all probably know about the embarrassing gaffes by CNN and Fox News in their initial misreporting that the law had been struck down, when in fact, if they had just kept reading, they would have seen that it had been upheld.
The back-tracking that ensued provided plenty of comic material for Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show.”
While much has been made of these two outlets’ mistakes, it’s also important to note how many journalists took those extra seconds, turned the page, continued reading and got it right.
Bloomberg News, for example, not only got it right, but got it first. A number of news organizations, including The Associated Press, also got it right and turned the story quickly.
One organization that did outstanding work that day was SCOTUSblog, which is written mostly by lawyers but has seasoned reporters on staff as well.
In my two years as a reporter covering courts in Colorado, I found SCOTUSblog to be an excellent resource for judicial coverage. The site really came into its own in a big way with the health care decision.
They also followed up with an excellent tick-tock account of how the story unfolded.
As SCOTUSblog points out, the court itself bears some responsibility for the errors that flowed within the first few minutes of releasing the decision.
By failing to post the decision on its website immediately and not emailing it to news organizations directly, the court created an environment ripe for this type of error.
Plus it didn’t help that Chief Justice John Roberts in writing the majority decision “buried the lead,” as judges are sometimes wont to do.
But the episode does drive home a point we would all do well to remember in this breathless up-to-the minute, down to the nano-second reporting that many of us are all being asked to do.
Take a breath. Read everything. Double check. Get it right the first time, even if it means you’re not the first one.