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Social Media Amplified Errors in Supreme Court Coverage, Say W&L Journalism Professors

Pamela Luecke knows all about journalists’ need to be first with the news.

For Luecke, head of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications at Washington and Lee University, the misreporting on Thursday by both Fox News and CNN of the landmark Supreme Court decision on the health-care law was neither new nor unusual.

What has changed, in her view, is the megaphone effect that caused those two reports to go farther, faster, on the wings of social media.

“I can remember instances in my own career where we occasionally advanced something that we ought not to have advanced,” said Luecke, former editor of the Lexington (Ky.) Herald. “Trying to get things first is a time-honored tradition in news. Occasionally screwing up is also a time-honored tradition.

“But being wrong, whether you’re first or last, still erodes the credibility of any news organization. Just because it happens, it shouldn’t be acceptable.”

In this instance, Fox News and CNN both reported in the first minutes after the decision was made public that the court had struck down the individual mandate at the heart of the health-care law.  Headlines on the TV screens and websites of both organizations were unequivocal.

• Read W&L journalism professor Toni Locy’s perspective

As their reporters and producers read through the court’s finding more carefully, both Fox and CNN had to backtrack and correct. CNN eventually issued an apology for the error.

“It used to be that the prime directive for professionals in an intensively competitive industry was, ‘Get it first, but first get it right,'” added Brian Richardson, the Redenbaugh Term Professor in Journalism at W&L. “Now, with cable news networks leading the charge, it’s “Get it first, and then, maybe, get it right. If we screw it up, we can fix it later. Most people will probably still be watching.'”

The role of social media was especially noticeable when the two erroneous reports were tweeted and re-tweeted in the minutes between the first reports and the eventual correction.

“I think social media does make it far more tempting to get things out without any reflection or even a pause to consider what is being reported,” Luecke said. “That megaphone effect causes an untruth to be heard all around the world in seconds. That simply wouldn’t have been the case in the past.”

In addition, she thinks that consumers of news may have lowered their standards for accuracy in the social media age, too.

“I think many come to believe that, ‘Oh, well, this may be wrong this second, but over time we’ll get the truth.’ Among the young generation, in particular, there seems to be more tolerance for being ‘close to the truth.'”

Luecke added that the opinions rendered by the Supreme Court are especially dangerous when it comes to quick interpretation and reporting.

“I understand the intense interest in having it first, but it’s almost impossible for a mortal to absorb that much information, synthesize it and present a cogent headline that quickly,” Luecke said.

Richardson, who teaches basic reporting classes, was clear about the way he’d grade the efforts of CNN and Fox.

“When one of my reporting students makes a fact error in a story, she gets an ‘F.'” said Richardson. “I get some flak for that policy, even from a few of my colleagues. But you know what? Too bad. Democracy is poorly served — or not at all — when we don’t put audiences first by making sure we’re right.”

News Contact:
Jeffery G. Hanna
Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs
(540) 458-8459

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