Twelve minutes. That's the length of time it took CNN to correct itself after inaccurately reporting the Supreme Court's decision on President Obama's Affordable Care Act on June 28, 2012.
The date and time of this landmark ruling had been established in advance, making the court's announcement more of a pseudo-event than a scoop. However, with every national media outlet camped on the steps of the Supreme Court, the temptation to be first was too great for CNN to ignore—even if that meant abandoning its ethics.
Chief Justice John Roberts began delivering the verdict around 10:06 a.m. EDT accompanied by a dense 59-page document. Only a minute later, CNN correspondent Kate Bolduan frantically broke the news on-air outside the courthouse, while Roberts was still reading the decision inside.1
This is our first reading, we're still going through the reading, uh, the, the, uh, the opinion, but I want bring you the breaking news that according to producer Bill Mears, the individual mandate is not a valid, of, not a valid exercise of, the commerce clause. So it appears as if, the Supreme Court justices have struck down the individual mandate, the centerpiece of the healthcare legislation. I'm going to hop back on this phone to try to get more information [….]2
The chaotic nature of Bolduan's delivery while attempting to beat the competition is clear. Of course, the information she released also was incomplete, inaccurate, and just plain wrong. Incidentally, Fox News also fumbled the ruling, but corrected its error much more quickly and efficiently than CNN. While the individual mandate was indeed found unconstitutional under the commerce clause of the Constitution, further reading (on page four) reveals that the mandate was upheld on other grounds—as a tax.3
In CNN's defense, Bolduan's initial report shows some caution, using phrases such as, "we're still going through the reading" and "it appears as if." However, the network followed up Bolduan's report with speculation from other correspondents about the impact of the decision. Moreover, CNN’s lower-third-of-the-screen graphic compounded that speculation by delivering emphatically definitive headlines, thus eviscerating any signs of caution.
Almost comically, as CNN reporters continued to update their findings, so did the graphics operator. Below is the sequence of "lower thirds" headlines that aired during the decision. Notice how quickly the graphics change to reflect the reporter’s findings (or lack thereof).
BREAKING NEWS: HEALTH CARE RULING ANY MINUTE
BREAKING NEWS: SUPREME CT. KILLS INDIVIDUAL MANDATE
BREAKING NEWS: INDIVIDUAL MANDATE STRUCK DOWN, Supreme Court finds measure unconstitutional
BREAKING NEWS: SUPREME COURT RULES ON OBAMACARE
BREAKING NEWS: INDIVIDUAL MANDATE "MAY BE UPHELD",
Supreme Court: Can stand as a tax
BREAKING NEWS: OBAMACARE PARTLY UPHELD, PARTLY STRUCK DOWN
BREAKING NEWS: SUPREME COURT RULES ON OBAMACARE
It wasn't until 10:18 a.m., twelve minutes after the initial report, that reporter John King finally delivered an accurate account of the court's decision. At last the seemingly endless cycle of reporters reading, updating, and speculating had ceased. If the court's document were a novel, it would be the equivalent of journalists reading one chapter and drawing conclusions on the book’s entire plot, and then reading another chapter and immediately updating the earlier conclusions.
Unlike Fox News, CNN's error was not confined to the television screen. The damaging report was carried across multiple platforms including CNN’s Web site, e-mail, and social media channels such as Twitter.5 Not only was President Obama fooled by the initial reports,6 but eight members of Congress were too, tweeting the inaccurate ruling to their followers.7
The saying, "speed thrills, but kills," is a lesson to be learned here. Journalistic integrity should never be sacrificed in favor of the excitement and rush of trying to be first. CNN took that gamble and lost, badly. By 10:10 a.m. EDT, other news outlets, such as Bloomberg News, the Associated Press, and the broadcast television networks, had all correctly reported the decision.8 CNN, on the other hand, was still eight minutes away from correcting its error. According to a CNN memo obtained by Politico, Network Senior Vice President and Washington bureau chief Sam Feist told staffers, "Today we failed to adhere to our own standard, namely it’s better to be right than to be first."9 The network publicly issued an apology as well, stating, “CNN regrets that it didn't wait to report out the full and complete opinion regarding the mandate.”10
In addition to CNN's own ethical standards, the Radio Television Digital News Association's (RTDNA) and Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), both recommend a code of ethics for the media industry. When it comes to covering breaking news, RTDNA's core value reads, "Professional electronic journalists should pursue truth aggressively and present the news accurately, in context, and as completely as possible."11 SPJ adds that media entities should "[m]ake certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context."12 CNN failed to live up to both of these organizations' standards.
The most glaring detail about this whole event is the non-impetuous or non-adlibbed nature of the Court's decision.13 Reporters and producers knew the date, time, location, and possible outcomes, yet still made the conscious decision to win the media race rather than remain true to their own codes of ethics. Being first clearly meant more to CNN than being right. While the network has promised to pursue an internal investigation into the matter, I believe the public is never likely to learn of its outcome.
A Gallup Poll taken some weeks before the health care ruling found Americans' confidence in television news already at an all-time low, with only "21% of adults expressing a great deal or quite a lot of confidence" in the media.14 It would be interesting to learn if this percentage has changed since CNN’s blunder. One must consider that mistakes of this magnitude may not only affect a single entity, but an entire industry.
According to the Associated Press, the New York Times purposefully waited to report the Court's ruling until its journalists had an opportunity to peruse the document.15 Ironically, the Times reported its verdict online at approximately the same time when CNN finally got it right. The mistakes, embarrassment, and twelve minutes of chaos could have all been avoided if CNN had just stayed true to its own standards.
In this digital age of news delivery, the race to be first is a treacherous one, laced with risks. The Internet has placed tremendous pressures upon journalists to deliver stories at lightning fast speed. But is the prize of "being first" worth the price of being wrong? This is a time when journalists need to adhere to the various codes of ethics more than ever and resist the temptation of cutting corners in order to win a less important race. Remember, speed kills and twelve minutes of getting it wrong feels a lot longer than pausing twelve minutes to get it right.
1. Alex Weprin, "How CNN Got It Wrong," TV Newser, June 28, 2012, http://www.mediabistro.com/tvnewser/how-cnn-got-it-wrong_b135444 (accessed August 10, 2012).
2. CNN News Room Broadcast, "Supreme Court Rules on Obamacare" (originally aired June 28, 2012).
3. National Federation of Independent Business et al. v. Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, et al., No. 11-393 (2012).
4. CNN News Room Broadcast (see #2 above)
5. Jeff Sonderman, "CNN, Fox News Err In Covering Supreme Court Health Care Ruling," Poynter, June 29, 2012, http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/mediawire/179144/how-journalists-are-covering-todays-scotus-health-care-ruling/ (accessed August 12, 2012).
6. Paul Farhi, "Early Reports on Health-Care Decision from CNN, Fox Overturned One Mandate: Accuracy," The Washington Post, June 28, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/cnn-fox-botch-supreme-court-health-care-decision-in-latest-media-misstep/2012/06/28/gJQA7tU19V_story.html (accessed August 12, 2012).
7. Tim Mak, "Health Care Ruling: Lawmakers Got It Wrong, Too," Politico, June 28, 2012, http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0612/77940.html (accessed August 10, 2012).
8. Brian Stelter, "Rushing to Report the Heath Care Ruling, and Getting it Wrong, "The New York Times, June 28, 2012, http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/28/rushing-to-report-the-health-ruling-and-getting-it-wrong/ (accessed August 12, 2012).
9. Dylan Byers, "CNN 'Looking Into' Supreme Court 'Mistake'," Politico, June 29, 2012, http://www.politico.com/blogs/media/2012/06/cnn-looking-into-supreme-court-mistake-127718.html (accessed August 10, 2012).
10. CNN Press Room, "CNN Correction: Supreme Court Ruling," CNN, June 28, 2012, http://cnnpressroom.blogs.cnn.com/2012/06/28/cnn-correction/ (accessed August 10, 2012).
11. RTDNA Code of Ethics, "Guidelines for Breaking News Events," Radio Television Digital News Association, http://www.rtdna.org/pages/media_items/guidelines-for-breaking-news-events400.php?g=37?id=400 (accessed August 12, 2012).
12. SPJ Code of Ethics, "Seek Truth and Report It," Society of Professional Journalists, http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp (accessed August 12, 2012).
13. Bill Mears, "Supreme Court to Rule Thursday on Health Care," CNN, June 26, 2012, http://www.cnn.com/2012/06/25/politics/health-care-ruling/index.html (accessed August 12, 2012).
14. Lymari Morales, "Americans' Confidence in Television News Drops to New Low," Gallup, July 10, 2012, http://www.gallup.com/poll/155585/Americans-Confidence-Television-News-Drops-New-Low.aspx (accessed August 10, 2012).
15. David Bauder, "Rush To Report US Healthcare Ruling Trips up CNN, Fox," Associated Press, June 28, 2012, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/rush-report-us-health-ruling-trips-cnn-fox (accessed August 12, 2012).