The questions we wish CNN and FOX would answer

Having deconstructed many bad decisions with newsrooms across the country, I’ve been trying to analyze what we can learn from what went wrong Thursday at both Fox and CNN, which initially misinterpreted the Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act.

This process always starts by asking the right questions.

The answers to these questions will be instructive to anyone who is interested in making journalism more accurate and increasing public trust in the news.

Here’s what we’d ask CNN and Fox. (We’ve sent questions along these lines to both networks and will update if we hear back.)

1. Walk us through your reporting on the decision, step by step.
2. Describe who was reading the decision for your newsroom, how many pages that individual read, and what he or she conveyed back to the newsroom based on that reading?
3. Knowing this would be a complex issue to cover (both because the health care law is complex and Supreme Court decisions are difficult to digest), how did you prepare for the variety of scenarios possible? And how did you make everyone on all the different platforms aware of that plan?
4. How did you realize you made a mistake and how did you determine what to do next?
5. Were you aware of what others were reporting and how did that influence your newsroom?
6. What changes in editorial procedures or staffing will happen as a result of this review?

Newsrooms struggle with these questions for a number of reasons. Whenever you start peeling apart the decisions involved a big mistake, the first impulse is to put the best spin on things. And you can see that in the inadequate statements issued by both newsrooms. So far, both networks are sticking by their initial explanation that blames Chief Justice John Roberts for writing that the law was unconstitutional under the Commerce Clause. Fox is also pointing out that CNN’s mistakes were more extensive.

There’s no question that publishing wrong information undermines the public’s ability to trust journalists. But we gain some trust back when we explain ourselves in a way that takes responsibility for our mistakes.

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  • Anonymous

    I filled in at the courthouse one summer about 100 years ago. As he made his vacation getaway the regular guy warned me: Always read/hear the decision right to the end. It’s Rule #1 of reporting judgments & always will be. All the stuff about tighter deadlines & how it was released is secondary. Reporters have been flashing big courthouse breaks & getting them right for a long, long time. No mandatory novel-reading or special protocols needed. Just keep it simple: Rule #1.

  • Clayton Burns

    What I can’t see is why Toobin was so totally out of position. If CNN’s reporters had what at least one of them thought was a confusing opinion, why wasn’t Toobin at her side to provide assistance? What was the role of the Syllabus?

    We need a sociological report on all of the senior legal analysts for the major media outlets.

    What strikes me as blindingly obvious is that journalism schools need an admissions curriculum. I recommend Lawson’s “The Brotherhoods,” “A Civil Action,” “The Turn of the Screw,” and the COBUILD English Grammar.

    CNN’s misadventures should form a case study that would be mandatory in first term in journalism.

    The opinion, by the way, is clear. It is ridiculous to blame the court.