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, cdigangi@spj.org, or Twitter, @cdigang.

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  • Steve Buttry

    I have blogged about my dissatisfaction with these tweaks to the code: http://stevebuttry.wordpress.com/2014/03/28/spjs-ethics-code-update-proposal-just-a-few-tweaks/

  • 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.


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