The shortcomings of instantaneous technology became evident Thursday as CNN and Fox News both incorrectly reported the historic Supreme Court decision on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
The cable news networks, going on the early parts of Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.’s opinion, initially reported that the court had struck down the mandate to buy health insurance.
The news went viral within seconds. Republican and tea party protesters on the steps of the court erupted, cheering and waving American and “Join, or Die” flags.
“They’ve announced that there are limits on the federal government,” a Republican protest leader announced to the cheering crowd.
GOP congressmen flaunted their social media skills and spread the misinformation by tweeting about their excitement.
“Breaking – #SupremeCourt strikes #individualmandate. Great news for American people, victory for constitution. #Obamacare,” tweeted Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla.
Rep. Dennis Ross, also a Republican from Florida, tweeted: “Individual Mandate ruled unconstitutional. Let Freedom Ring.”
The congressmen’s tweets were later deleted from their feeds, although copies were preserved by the Sunlight Foundation, a group in Washington that advocates for government transparency. Asked about the errant tweet, Michael Mahaffey, a spokesman for Rooney said, "It’s better to send out a mistaken tweet on a Supreme Court decision you haven’t had a chance to read than it is to vote for a trillion-dollar health care takeover bill that you haven’t had a chance to read."
Within minutes, however, confusion took over in the world of social media and at the court as other networks said the mandate had been upheld.
Washington resident David Heyman had been following SCOTUSblog, which reported the decision correctly, when he got a CNN breaking news alert on his iPad claiming the contrary.
“I didn’t know which to believe,” said Heyman, the director of marketing at Bloomberg BNA, a political and regulatory news organization. “CNN just grossly jumped the gun.”
The desire to get it first instead of getting it right is one of the main reasons the mistake happened, according to Michael Bugeja, the director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University.
“Journalists in this situation are prime candidates for major screw-ups,” said Bugeja, who’s authored four books on digital technology. “A mistake about a Supreme Court decision – a historic, landmark decision – is entirely possible if a reporter . . . is on an intense deadline and uses instantaneous global micro-blogging techniques that disseminate an error in multiples.”
CNN and Fox issued corrections Thursday, although each took a different approach.
Fox justified its reporting: “We gave our viewers the news as it happened. . . . Bill Hemmer even added, be patient as we work through this.”
CNN said it had wrongly reported the decision and that it “regrets that it didn’t wait to report out the full and complete opinion regarding the mandate.” It said it “apologizes for the error.”