Get It Right

If you’re looking for a lesson in how not to do journalism, last week’s Supreme Court decision on health care provides a number of lessons.

Did you see the initial reports on CNN and Fox? If you didn’t, well, you didn’t miss much, because they both got it wrong. In their haste to be first with the news, both networks reported the court found the insurance mandate unconstitutional. The reporters apparently just tried to skim through the 193-page opinion in a matter of seconds, and got it totally wrong.

Sure, they quickly changed their stories, but that’s not the point. The point is, reporters are supposed to get the story right before they get it first.

Something I’ve never really understood is why broadcasters rush to “get it first.” After all, there is no way to know if the news program you are watching has the news first or not. Unless you’re watching multiple sets at the same time, you don’t know what is on the other stations. So, does it really matter if this or that station has the news a few seconds, or even minutes, before another station? It seems like too many stations don’t have a problem saying, “Sure, we got the story wrong, but at least we got it first.”

Now admittedly the decision is long, 193 pages. But the Court conveniently provided what’s called a syllabus – a short explanation of what the court decided. And there it is: after only a few paragraphs the syllabus says the act is constitutional.

Normally when reporters get stories wrong it’s because their sources have been wrong or misleading. But in the case of the Affordable Care Act, the source was the court opinion itself. Reporters from Fox and CNN had the actual document in front of them. So this wasn’t a case of a source trying to mislead a reporter, it was simply a case of lazy reporting, and needlessly rushing to get the story first.

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