Posts Tagged ‘U.S. Supreme Court’


Errors in reporting SCOTUS health care ruling remind us of the speeding bullet of journalism

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.

Stolen Valor Act vs. free speech: A First Amendment victory

A significant victory for the First Amendment drew scant attention last week, lost amid the barrage of well-deserved coverage given to the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Affordable Health Care Act.

On the same day, the court, in the case U.S. v. Alvarez, struck down the Stolen Valor Act, which made it a federal crime for someone to falsely claim to be a recipient of military honors, especially the Congressional Medal of Honor.

This was a case in which SPJ and a number of media organizations filed a friend of the court brief urging the justices to do exactly what they did in the name of protecting free speech.

This may seem like an odd place for us to be, defending the rights of someone accused of being a liar, but as so often happens in First Amendment cases, the people on the cutting edge of the law are not exactly role models.

Such is the case with Xavier Alvarez, a California man prosecuted after he described himself at a public meeting as a retired Marine who had won the Medal of Honor.

“Lying was his habit,” observed Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion. Kennedy noted that Alvarez also falsely had claimed to be a former Detroit Red Wing hockey player and that he had lied about marrying a starlet from Mexico.

But when he claimed to be a Medal of Honor recipient, that’s when Alvarez ran afoul of the law, and that’s where the slippery slope of a free-speech problem began.

There are forms of lying that are not protected by the First Amendment, the court noted. (Read the full opinion and related documents and friend of the court briefs, collected by SCOTUSblog.)

Perjury on a witness stand, for example, is a crime because otherwise it would threaten the integrity of any court proceeding.

And making false statements in a defamation case is not protected under the First Amendment.

But here there was no claim that Alvarez defamed anyone or spoke a falsehood under oath. He was prosecuted simply because he falsely claimed to have a medal.

That kind of content-based definition of speech as a crime was troubling to those of us who saw it as a dangerous precedent. What if the next set of laws criminalized falsehoods about some other topic?

Fortunately, a 6-3 majority of justices also saw the problem at the heart of this law.

“Permitting the government to decree this speech to be a criminal offense whether shouted from the rooftops or made in a barely audible whisper would endorse governmental authority to compile a list of subjects about which false statements are punishable,” Kennedy wrote.

“That governmental power has no clear limiting principal,” Kennedy said, conjuring up the image of “The Ministry of Truth,” from George Orwell’s novel “1984.”

Justice Stephen Breyer also saw another problem in his concurring opinion when he wrote, “the threat of criminal prosecution for making a false statement can  inhibit the speaker from making true statements thereby “chilling” a kind of speech that lies at the First Amendment’s heart.”

Kennedy also pointed out there are remedies to counter such lying that don’t require criminalizing speech.

That’s where SPJ, journalists and other media advocates come in. There are quite a few reporters out there who have exposed the lies of individuals who have fabricated military records and honors.

There are also databases out there that seek to list the true Medal of Honor winners such as this one compiled by The Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

Whenever someone describes himself or herself in public as a decorated war hero, it should be a our habit to check out the claim.

That way we’re exercising our First Amendment rights to seek and report the truth while protecting the valor of those who rightfully earned that honor.

SPJ Notes….And speaking of true military heroes, be sure to tune in when you have a moment, to the two most recent podcasts of Studio SPJ. Host Holly Fisher has been interviewing winners of our Sigma Delta Chi Awards, both of whom profiled soldiers.

Here’s the link to a segment she did with Corinne Reilly of the Virginian-Pilot, who wrote about an Army medical unit in Afghanistan.

And here is a link to Holly’s interview with Sara Stuteville, who won for a story she did for Pacific Northwest magazine on a marine’s return to Iraq.

On a day when we celebrate our independence, I think it’s important to remember the sacrifices of those who fought to protect those freedoms. Have a safe and happy Fourth of July.

 

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