Journalistic Error in the Age of Social Media

In addition to its obvious importance as a political football, the Supreme Court’s ruling on the health care reform is interesting as a study in the propagation of information -- and error -- across the media universe, including social media.

For those readers who haven’t already guessed what I’m referring to, CNN.com screwed the pooch in a big way this morning, with a banner headline reporting that the Supreme Court struck down the individual mandate which is the centerpiece of the health care reform. In fact, it upheld the constitutionality of the individual mandate as a tax. The headline was corrected shortly thereafter -- but not before a good number of Twitter users picked up the wrong information and disseminated it to their followers. Confusion and consternation ensued.

Actually this screw-up isn’t terribly surprising. Like other news organizations, CNN almost certainly had reporters and legal analysts listening to the Supreme Court discussion and reading the decision to hash out what it meant, in order to get the relevant information -- that is, what the court decided -- ready to broadcast on CNN and post on CNN.com as soon as possible. These reporters and analysts probably simply jumped the gun -- likely after reading, early in the ruling, that the majority (led by John Roberts) had “concluded in Part III–A that the indi­vidual mandate is not a valid exercise of Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause,” adding, “Nor can the individual mandate be sustained under the Nec­essary and Proper Clause as an integral part of the Affordable CareAct’s other reforms.”

Of course, the ruling goes on to state that the individual mandate is still constitutional, just on different grounds: “[T]he individ­ual mandate must be construed as imposing a tax on those who do not have health insurance, if such a construction is reasonable… Because ‘every reasonable construction must be resorted to, in order to save a statute from unconstitutionality.’”

I don’t know for sure that this is what happened, but it seems like a plausible speculation as to why CNN.com made such a glaring error. The question now is how that erroneous report, however brief in duration, affects CNN.com’s credibility with its numerous Twitter followers. It’s one thing for a news organization to get something spectacularly wrong; the error takes on a whole additional level of importance when your followers end up feeling embarrassed too. What’s the likelihood they’ll rely on CNN.com for reporting on important subjects in the future?

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1 comment about "Journalistic Error in the Age of Social Media".
  1. Thomas Siebert from WOLFGANG SOLO: Strategic Communications & Benevolent Propaganda , June 28, 2012 at 4:39 p.m.
    Another case of people feeling the need to get it first instead of making sure you got it right. And if they had gotten it first and right, who would even have remembered tomorrow? A few dozen news junkies. Nobody else. It's insane.