Three lessons for newsrooms from the Supreme Court health care reporting errors

Communication and teamwork.

That’s what I’d point to as two things that helped news organizations such as AP, Bloomberg and SCOTUSblog get the health care decision right. At the same time, failures in these areas contributed to the mistake made by CNN and Fox News.

This became clear to me as I dug into the 7,000-plus word tick-tock by SCOTUSblog publisher and co-founder Tom Goldstein about how the decision was issued, reported and mangled.

He delivers a minute-by-minute breakdown of how things unfolded, based on what he says are “interviews with those directly involved; nothing is second hand.”

It’s titled “We’re getting wildly differing assessments,” and it’s fascinating.

Goldstein’s story offers a detailed look at how things went awry at CNN and Fox News. It also details how they went right elsewhere, and the complications faced by all.

Reading it I was struck by three notable factors that affected reporting about the Supreme Court’s health care decision, all of which relate to the aforementioned communication and teamwork.

Below are those three factors, along with three lessons for newsrooms.

1. Two-man rule

As soon as Chief Justice John Roberts began reading the decision, officials in the Court’s press office began handing out hard copies to the assembled reporters. Journalists grabbed the decision and ran.

SCOTUSblog team member Lyle Denniston took two copies of the decision and met up with his colleagues at a nearby location. They were soon all together as they worked through the decision and ran their live blog.

Bloomberg and AP also had multiple people reading the decision and working as a team together in the same place. Bloomberg had three people, according to Goldstein’s report, and AP had two reading the decision, according to information provided to me by the news wire. (The two AP reporters were connected by phone to a desk supervisor in Washington.)

CNN and Fox News, in contrast, each had one (very experienced) producer in the press area reading the decision. One pair of eyes. These producers were connected to other members of the team by conference call, but none of the people on the other end of the line had access to the decision.

Both of these producers made the wrong call. They also had no one next to them to check their reading of the decision.

From Goldstein’s report:

Into his conference call, the CNN producer says (correctly) that the Court has held that the individual mandate cannot be sustained under the Commerce Clause, and (incorrectly) that it therefore “looks like” the mandate has been struck down. The control room asks whether they can “go with” it, and after a pause, he says yes.

The Fox producer reads the syllabus exactly the same way, and reports that the mandate has been invalidated. Asked to confirm that the mandate has been struck down, he responds: “100%.”

Compare that with how the SCOTUSblog team made the call:

I turn to Lyle – who has been focusing on the Commerce Clause section of the syllabus on his copy, but also skimmed the tax power discussion in the syllabus – and say, “They win under the taxing power.”  Lyle responds, “Yes.”  Kevin Russell has gotten a third copy of the opinion from an NBC runner; he agrees.  (Lyle then turns immediately to writing the overwhelming majority of our team’s analysis of the case, as he has throughout.)

Three sets of eyes reading the same document and all agreeing before putting it out there publicly.

Similarly, AP had previously established a routine whereby their reporters would repeat back to each other the information they were going to file, as a way of ensuring it was understood and agreed upon.

The above is similar to the military’s “two-man rule” used for nuclear launches. No one person is able to push the button.

Expressed in journalistic terms, SCOTUSblog, AP and Bloomberg used multiple sources.

CNN and Fox News did not.

Lesson: Multiple sources are still required, even when the sources are your own people. Apply the two-man rule, especially for interpreting critical information that comes in a complex package.

2. The echo chamber

What did key people at CNN and Fox News do after incorrectly reporting the mandate had been struck down? They looked at what the other one was reporting, according to Goldstein’s story:

Television executives in CNN control rooms glance up at monitors carrying their competitors to see Fox’s banner, which confirms that the mandate has been struck down. The same thing happens in reverse at Fox News in Washington. In the critical early moments, the two networks’ errors reinforce each other.

There’s an understandable element here of wanting to focus on your own work and the information you’re gathering. This could help avoid being swayed by what others are reporting, perhaps incorrectly. But, as Goldstein notes near the end of his article, it’s surprising that neither CNN nor Fox were paying close attention to the wires in order to check their work and see what was already public.

AP has a reputation for getting this kind of call correct. They also tend to get it fast. When time is of the essence, you need to choose where to place your attention. A wire service like AP or Reuters would seem to be a valuable (and necessary) place to watch in those critical first moments.

By not watching the wires, an echo chamber effect took hold as CNN and Fox News looked to each other in the moments after they each made the wrong call.

Also striking is the fact that the White House communications team focused more on cable news and not on the wires:

The announcements on CNN and Fox News in [press secretary Jay] Carney’s office have been the first news of the decision, and both report that the mandate had been invalidated. Although the wire services have already reported the decision correctly, the communications team is not aware of those reports.

This suggests a connection between the cable news echo chamber and the Washington echo chamber. They certainly seem to reinforce each other on a consistent basis, with this being a notable example.

Lesson: Focus less on competitors and more on identifying and tracking the news outlets and other information sources likely to have valuable information for a specific event or breaking story. Avoid the echo chamber.

3. Points of failure

Things break — and I’m not talking about stories.

Batteries die, phone calls get dropped, websites go down. People make mistakes too, of course. This event showcased a variety of ways in which technologies, workflows and people failed. Those who succeeded planned ahead and built in redundancies. (Remember: Communication and teamwork.)

A first, critical redundancy was addressed above: The two networks that got the news wrong each only had one person reading the decision. These people were transformed into single points of failure, and both failed. No redundancy.

Along with the lack of eyes on the document, another factor contributed to CNN’s mistake.

Not long after the CNN producer at the courthouse made the call that the mandate was struck down, he realized he’d made a mistake. That’s when a flaw in their communications workflow/infrastructure revealed itself. From Goldstein:

… as planned the reporter [on the courthouse steps] is putting her phone down to go on the air, which cuts herself off from the only CNN employee with access to the opinion.

The reporter on the courthouse steps was linked to the producer by phone. To go on air, she had to put down the phone. That severed their connection, their ability to communicate and work together as a team.

She couldn’t hear him saying “Wait, wait.”

Couldn’t there have been a producer with her, someone who could remain connected the entire time? Someone to wave frantically in her line of sight when the producer utters the words, “Wait, wait.” Or couldn’t the producer inside the courthouse have been connected via an earpiece?

Easy to say now, of course.

But the more I look at it, the more that lone producer inside the courthouse seems to have been isolated from his team, not to mention cut off from communicating at a critical moment. (I realize this was unintentional on CNN’s part.)

This isolation helped broadcast a mistake, and it prevented a speedy correction.

CNN wasn’t alone in its flawed preparations and infrastructure.

The Supreme Court itself didn’t adequately prepare for the attention and scrutiny this decision was going to attract.

As Goldstein notes in his report, the press office denied SCOTUSblog’s request to provide the decision to the press by email. This meant there were only two possible ways to receive the decision: Obtain a copy in person in the press area at the court, or download a copy from the Supreme Court’s website.

The hard copy option was only available to a small number of (admittedly large and far-reaching) news organizations. It restricted the flow of information.

The second option, the website, would be accessible to a vastly larger audience, thereby bringing more eyes to the decision and helping encourage a diversity of coverage.

At the appointed time, the website crashed. It stayed down for 30 minutes, according to Goldstein.

“The opinion will not appear on the website for a half-hour,” he writes. “So everyone in the country not personally at 1 First St., NE in Washington, DC is completely dependent on the press to get the decision right.”

He concludes that, “The fact that the Court initially released the opinion only in physical form to the media at the Courthouse made it much more difficult for others to resolve the conflicting media reports.”

A technology failure at the court restricted the flow of information, which in turn had the effect of giving greater prominence to places like CNN and Fox News. When they too failed, it had a cascading effect.

For a very small view of how the team at SCOTUSblog planned for possible failures, you can read a previous post about how they significantly upgraded their technology infrastructure in advance of decision day. They also had multiple people all together in one place to read the decision and concur on its core contents.

And you can read this single sentence from Goldstein’s report wherein he details the fact that on the day of the decision they had even planned ahead for possible failures at the ISP level:

There are six other members of our team nearby, running nine computers on eight separate Internet connections.

Lesson: Assume that people and things will fail, and build in redundancies to prepare for them. Analyze workflows and technology to ensure key people and networks are not cut off or isolated due to a single communications failure.

POTUS and SCOTUS

Finally, one of the most remarkable lines in Goldstein’s coverage comes near the end, in his analysis of how the information flowed to President Obama:

In fact, for at least a few minutes he thought the [mandate was struck down] and for more than five minutes, he had substantially worse information than many Americans.

There’s perhaps no more notable example of how a cascade of failures — human, technological and otherwise — conspired to create a polluted information environment for one of the year’s biggest stories.

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