Messy SCOTUS coverage is damaging for media

Today, I am disappointed in journalism.

Not everyone botched the announcement of the Supreme Court’s Affordable Care Act ruling, but plenty of trusted media outlets did a disservice to their audiences by prioritizing speed instead of accuracy.

Like half a million others, I turned to SCOTUSblog at 10 a.m. today, toggling between that and my Twitter feed. At 10:08, the explosion began: The Associated Press said the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act. CNN said it was ruled unconstitutional. The Daily Beast said it was struck down at 10:08 but retweeted The AP at 10:09. Confused, I went back to SCOTUSblog to read their measured reports.

twitter feed

My Twitter feed in the seconds following the ruling announcement.

From the SPJ Code of Ethics: “Journalists should test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error.”

Many of the erroneous tweets and headlines have disappeared from their primary sources, though those blunders live on, thanks to screen shots and the copy-paste function. But the confusion was costly from a future credibility standpoint. The networks and publications that got it right should take note of the ridicule and criticism raining down on their Twitter-happy peers.

Most of my frustration came from seeing the incorrect reports retweeted. As the minutes after the announcement passed, I continued to read posts of misguided happiness and anger, all because a friend of a follower of a follower of a news organization perpetuated the seemingly reliable information.

(Jeff Sonderman of Poynter has a good roundup of and reaction to the inaccurate reports/tweets.)

The social media response to the blunders proves that people would rather get correct information as it becomes available, rather than quickly receive an imperfect report. The point of engaging with a news outlet is to stay informed.

I don’t want to have to congratulate the journalists who waited to verify the ruling to publish the result. They just did their jobs correctly, which I expect of them. I am disappointed that this expectation was not met by others.

The winner in this brawl to break news is SCOTUSblog — it’s a non-traditional outlet started by law professionals, and they presented reliable coverage of the complicated ruling. By 10:22, they had 866,000 people tracking their live blog.

But for the millions who referenced Twitter, breaking news alerts, live TV and 24-hour-news-cycle websites, the day was one of defeat. Regardless of one’s opinion on the legislation, news consumers were exposed to a slew of unreliable reports before being corrected.

I hope health care isn’t the only industry that sees reform after today’s ruling.

Christine DiGangi is the communications coordinator at SPJ headquarters. She graduated from DePauw University and has worked in journalism and communications. Connect with Christine through email,, or Twitter, @cdigang.


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  • Steve Buttry

    I have blogged about my dissatisfaction with these tweaks to the code:

  • Brandon Ballenger

    Kind of amazing to see a call to “engage and be a part of the process” after reading this.

    So a digital subcommittee was formed to represent, oh, the past two decades of journalism’s evolution — and then almost all of its recommendations were ignored?

    I’d love to hear why.

  • Steve Buttry

    I would, too, Brandon. I hope that we at least get an explanation.

  • Tootrue4you

    What about your award to Leland Yee?

  • Carla Kimbrough

    The ethics code forgot the ethical responsibility of telling the story of diversity, even when it’s unpopular. Given the changing demographics of this country, media professionals – still a largely white profession – must address diversity. By 2050, whites won’t be the majority anymore in the U.S., so it would behoove the media to address issues that affect the broader society. Look around the table of those drafting these revisions, does this committee, which is tasked with an enormous job, have any diversity? I hope so. If not, understand that diverse viewpoints make things better.

  • Mike Brown

    I think Seeking Truth touches on this somewhat: “Seek sources whose views are seldom used. Official and unofficial sources can be equally valid.”

    I also agree with you that there is a need for telling the story of diversity. I think you support your idea with why diversity is newsworthy, as well as ethical to do so. I was hoping that the ethics code would also address/recognize citizen journalism for the same reasons.

  • Dan Gainor

    I think it’s a bad idea to remove:

    Support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.

  • Kathryn Foxhall

    Over the last 20 years there has been a surge in policies in agencies and
    others prohibiting staff from speaking to reporters without going through
    public affairs or press offices. This March SPJ joined others in presenting the
    latest two surveys showing that the restrictions are pervasive and journalists
    overwhelming believe they keep information from the public.

    SPJ president David Cuillier, indicating these restrictions are clearly
    getting worse, said, “We as journalists and citizens, we cannot stand for this.
    Simply, we have to push back. It’s time.”

    The profession must address questions including whether it’s ethical to
    do reporting under such intense censorship without fighting it as hard as we
    can and routinely warning the public when news is gathered under these dubious

    If we turn a blind eye to the questionable reliability of sources under
    these controls, we may not recognize when we publish information that is
    skewed, tragically limited or harmful.

    But we bear responsibility for that negligence.

    I’m sending suggested changes to the committee.

  • charper51

    I think it is a good first step, but I believe the following need more attention:
    –The use of fairly, fair and balance as standards. If you use these words, you need to define them. My definition of fair and balance may be completely different from someone else’s definition.
    –You need to define a nontraditional provider of news.
    –You need far more about transparency by reporters, editors and publications. I want to know far more about the background, biases and other information about journalists when they write a story.
    –I wish you had not removed: “Give voice to the voiceless.”

  • charper51

    I think you have a good start, but here are some thoughts:
    –Balance and fairness are used in three places. One person’s definition of these words can be completely different from another person. I think you should eliminate these words because they no longer provide value.
    –Please define nontraditional provider of news.
    –Please emphasize transparency for reporters, editors and publications. I think this area is critical. I would like to see bios, biases and other information, including links to other stories. I am tired of parsing political bias in stories from all sides.
    –I would reinsert give voice to the voiceless.

  • Guest

    Yes there are other views:

    and marketers have a symbiotic relationship – at some point, they need
    each others’ cooperation to succeed. They, along with their readers,
    listeners and viewers, are part of a communication triad that fails if
    any part of the triad is weak or out of balance.”

  • SPJ Region 5

    SPJ Code of Ethics: Chicago Report

    following suggestions and comments regarding the 2014 overhaul of the 1996 SPJ
    Ethics Code come from the April 12 SPJ Region 5 conference in Chicago.


    Questions posed of the proposed code improvements:

    1. Does this suggested revision of the code cover the essential guiding pinciples
    of our profession in concise and efficient language?

    2. Is this suggested revision of the code helpful to journalists to improve
    and maintain their professional standards?

    3. Will these proposed changes maintain and improve the public’s trust of
    journalists and their work?

    Generally, the proposed code changes are an improvement over the 1996 document, but they are still riddled with redundancies and must be further simplied and distilled. For example, the preamble could be boiled down to this: Justice and
    good government require an informed public.

    Journalists should serve the public with fair, accurate and comprehensive
    information reported with integrity. This code sets forth our Society’s
    principles and standards in the practice of professional journalism.

    One suggestion: The preamble must include as one of the code’s raison d’etres
    “to protect the public’s right to know.”

    Items of concern NOT addressed in the proposed changes:

    1. Is it ethical for reporters covering events, issues and people to – in
    print or on broadcasts – to analyze, comment and critique those events,
    issues and people and still maintain a fair and objective journalistic

    2. Is the use of music and other forms of emotional manipulation an ethical use of journalistic tools when used in video reports?

    3. Is a role for dramatic re-enactments — in essence “faked footage” — in serious journalism?

    4. What mechanism(s) exist(s) to enforce the revised code once it becomes
    adopted? Should there be an appeals process for those journalists who
    believe they are innocent of charges of ethics code breeches?

    Other suggestions and ideas

    The code should be a call for journalists everywhere to unite as a single
    community and watch each other’s backs, rather than always viewing each
    other as “the competition” and setting up barriers between

    Seasoned professionals understand the broad concepts of an ethics code, but
    student journalists need specific and concrete rules to fully understand
    what constitutes an ethical breach, e.g. Do not pick information and
    photos off the Internet and put them in your reports even in they appear
    to be public domain and real information. Verify the facts and be certain
    of copyright infringements before publication.

    Respectfully submitted,

    DANN GIRE Chicago Daily Herald

    Region 5 of SPJ

  • AndySchotz

    Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to comment.

    I posted my thoughts on the first draft on the Region 2 blog:

    Andy Schotz
    Region 2 director, SPJ

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