June 28, 2012

Accuracy the Rx in Health Law Reporting

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Chicago Daily Tribune, Nov. 3, 1948 (Newseum collection)

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Orlando Sentinel, Nov. 8, 2000 (Newseum collection)

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Orlando Sentinel, Nov. 8, 2000 (Newseum collection)

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Orlando Sentinel, Nov. 8, 2000 (Newseum collection)

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New York Post, July 7, 2004 (Gift, David Salk Mandel)

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New York Post, July 7, 2004 (Newseum collection)

Another reporting error joins the list of infamous headlines throughout history that were not only inaccurate but dead wrong.

“Mandate struck down,” was the banner headline on CNN’s website, moments after the Supreme Court announced its ruling on President Barack Obama’s health care legislation, of which the individual mandate was a key provision. The network also tweeted the false information.

CNN was not alone in reporting the mistake. “Supreme Court Finds Health Care Individual Mandate Unconstitutional,” read the screen shot on Fox News.

In fact, the provision that CNN and Fox reported unconstitutional was, in fact, upheld.

Wanting to be first with breaking news is nothing new. Wanting to be the first with breaking news in the age of Twitter and Facebook makes embarrassments like these more likely.

How did the error occur? CNN released a statement explaining the mistake. 

“In his opinion, Chief Justice Roberts initially said that the individual mandate was not a valid exercise of Congressional power under the Commerce Clause. CNN reported that fact, but then wrongly reported that therefore, the court struck down the mandate as unconstitutional. However, that was not the whole of the Court’s ruling. CNN regrets that it didn’t wait to report out the full and complete opinion regarding the mandate. We made a correction within a few minutes and apologize for the error.”

Probably the best-known error in journalism history was made 64 years ago at the Chicago Daily Tribune, which declared Thomas Dewey the victor over President Harry S. Truman. Pollsters predicted that Dewey would defeat Truman in the 1948 election. The reliance on those predictions by a few deadline-pressed Tribune editors — combined with slow election returns, tight deadlines and a staff strike — produced the paper’s most famous embarrassment. The result: “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

During the 2004 presidential election, the New York Post went out on a limb and declared Rep. Dick Gephardt the vice presidential running mate of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. “Kerry’s Choice: Dem Picks Gephardt as VP Candidate,” the headline declared. Sen. John Edwards turned out to be Kerry’s choice. The Post corrected itself with a revision: “Kerry’s Choice: Dem Picks Edwards as VP Candidate (Really).”

In the 2000 presidential election, considered the most controversial in political history, unreliable polling data, a razor-close election and 24-hour news coverage led to confusion and conflicting broadcasts about the results. Broadcasters initially said Democratic nominee Al Gore had won the key state of Florida. Then they backtracked and said Republican nominee George W. Bush had won the state.

In the end, it was clear that the rush to be first was in large part responsible for the blunders. Editors at the Orlando Sentinel in Florida went through several headlines before finally settling on “Contested.”

After a contentious recount that also involved a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, Bush was declared the victor.

The Newseum’s HP New Media Gallery explores the strengths and pitfalls of the use of social media in the digital age.

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