June 28, 2012

ABC News Legal Analyst Dan Abrams expected that news organizations might incorrectly interpret the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act.

“Beware of #media mistakes on #ACA ruling,” he tweeted at 7 a.m. this morning. “I remember how many got it wrong on Bush v. Gore.”

Abrams was one of the first reporters to interpret the Gore v. Bush ruling correctly.

“I remember not knowing how much everyone else had screwed it up during Gore v. Bush until after the fact because there wasn’t social media and there wasn’t the level of accountability that there is today,” Abrams said in a phone interview. “There were just a few articles after the fact analyzing the coverage.”

CNN and Fox News both incorrectly reported that the individual mandate was struck down, causing confusion over what the Supreme Court had actually ruled and an uproar on Twitter, including a “Dewey Defeats Truman 2.0” meme.

Abrams said he thinks journalists are good at covering politics but struggle when covering policy and Supreme Court opinions. The rulings can be difficult to interpret, particularly for reporters who aren’t used to covering the Court on a regular basis and who don’t have a legal background.

CNN Congressional Correspondent Kate Bolduan — who reported on air incorrectly that the mandate had been struck down — has covered Supreme Court rulings in the past, but it’s not her beat as it is for NPR’s Nina Totenberg and The New York Times’ Adam Liptak, who is a lawyer.

Abrams said there are steps journalists can take when covering Supreme Court rulings to reduce the risk of inaccuracy. Most importantly, he said, journalists should quote from the opinion rather than making declarative statements about what they think it means.

We all get things wrong sometimes,” he said. “But when you have a ruling in your hand, which you can use, there really isn’t any reason to get the fundamentals and the heart of the opinion absolutely wrong.”

This is especially true when offering initial reports about the ruling, he said. As you continue your reporting, you can rely more on your own language and draw conclusions.

Abrams also suggests that reporters be open to admitting what they don’t know. He was reminded of this while talking about the ruling on “The View” this morning. When asked whether any of the provisions had been struck down, Abrams admitted that he hadn’t yet read the entire 193-page opinion and didn’t give a declarative answer.

While covering the ruling, SCOTUSblog took a similar approach, saying: “It’s very complicated, so we’re still figuring it out.”

The New York Times also took time to get the information right. In a blog post, Washington Bureau Chief David Leonhardt wrote: “We plan to tell the readers what the ruling means the moment that we feel comfortable with its basic meaning.” Establishing this understanding ahead of time can relieve at least some pressure within the newsroom, and it lets readers know that you’re committed to giving them accurate information as quickly as possible.

Sometimes we need to slow down — especially when we want to be first. Digital First Media’s Jim Brady put it well after journalists spread false reports of Joe Paterno’s death:

“If you’re right and first, no one remembers. If you’re first and wrong, everyone remembers.”

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As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website, Poynter.org, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the…
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