June 29, 2012

We all know that CNN and Fox News mistakenly reported Thursday that the Supreme Court struck down the “individual mandate” part of the health care law. How did this happen? Who’s responsible?

I blame Jeff Jarvis.

Fox and CNN’s mistakes stemmed from their decisions to report what they knew, or thought they knew, as soon as they knew it. In other words, it stemmed from their embrace of process journalism: Publish what you have now, figure out the story as you go, correct your mistakes as you update.

These reporters knew little and figured wrong. But that’s not necessarily a strike against you when practicing process journalism. When Jarvis coined the term in 2009, he framed it as a type of journalism that valued learning and discovery, not just the final product.

Jarvis told me via email that he “could not disagree more strongly” with my assessment that the news channels were practicing process journalism.

This was not a matter of reporting what you know when you know it. This was a matter of reporting your misunderstandings before you know enough to say that you know anything.

Thursday’s lesson, he wrote, is that “the scoop is and always has been a dangerous act of journalistic narcissism.” (He posted his full response on his blog.)

Perhaps it was poor execution. Perhaps it wasn’t the right story for this approach. But it looks like process journalism to me.

Reporting what you know

Fox News and CNN made it clear in their initial reports that they were giving viewers information in real-time, before they had the full story. Here’s how it went down on Fox News when anchor Bill Hemmer went to Shannon Bream at the Supreme Court:

Bream: “We’ve just gotten the opinion, I’m just getting a first look at it. It is authored by the chief justice, John Roberts. He has language specifically going to the Commerce Clause and whether the mandate is OK or not under the Commerce Clause … He says the individual mandate cannot be sustained under Congress’ power to regulate commerce. That means the mandate is gone. … We’ll take a look and I’ll try to get to severability as well…”

Hemmer: “All right, Shannon, because we are looking at this and we are trying – We talked about the fog of law, and to our viewers at home, be patient with us as we work through this. Megan, you’re seeing something, what is that?”

Megyn Kelly then said Fox was getting “conflicting information” and cited SCOTUSblog’s report that the mandate had been upheld as a tax.

How it played out on CNN:

Wolf Blitzer: “Hold on a second, hold on a second. Kate Bolduan has got some information. Kate, go ahead, tell us what’s going on.”

Bolduan: “This is our first read and we’re still going through the … opinion. But I wanted to bring you the breaking news that according to producer Bill Mears, the individual mandate is not a valid … exercise of the Commerce Clause. So it appears as if the Supreme Court justices have struck down the individual mandate, the centerpiece of the health care legislation. I’m going to hop back on this phone to try to get more information and bring it right to you, Wolf.”

Blitzer: “Wow, that’s a dramatic moment, if in fact the Supreme Court has ruled that the individual mandate is in fact unconstitutional, that would be history unfolding right now. It raises questions about any of this health-care reform law.” …

John King: “The court striking down that mandate is a dramatic blow to the policy and to the president. … The justices have just gutted, Wolf, the centerpiece provision of the Obama health care law. … A direct blow to the president of the United States, a direct blow to his Democratic Party.”

Blitzer: “Yeah, if in fact that’s the final word on the individual mandate. It could be a little bit more complicated…”

Talk about figuring it out in public: They qualified their statements with phrases like “first read,” “first look,” and “it appears.” The anchors tried to triangulate what their reporters were saying with what they were hearing elsewhere. This sort of thing is not new on live TV.

Jarvis has said those practicing process journalism must provide “caveats and context. The same is true of 24-hour cable news, where the viewer must become the editor, understanding the difference between what is known now and what can be confirmed later.”

CNN overreaches on multiple platforms

Though Fox News quickly backtracked its initial report, CNN took longer. In the meantime, it spread its incorrect conclusion beyond the broadcast onto its website, Twitter and email alerts, without the qualifiers that accompanied the initial, on-air reporting.

Though my Poynter colleague Jeff Sonderman disagrees that these news outlets were practicing process journalism, he said it’s important to tell people what you don’t know.

If you’re going to treat reporting as a process, you have to acknowledge at all times where that process stands. And that’s where CNN, if it was indeed intending upon process journalism, fell short.

Process journalism requires metadata — the information about the information. It requires journalists to report not only their current understanding, but also their degree of certainty in their knowledge and what yet-to-come information is missing.

Bad process journalism omits the metadata. It just reports your current thinking (“Mandate struck down”), depriving the reader of your uncertainty (“it appears”) and unknowns (“we haven’t read the whole ruling”).

Fox’s Michael Clemente didn’t use the term “process journalism” in his unapologetic apology for the network’s mistake, but he may as well have:

We gave our viewers the news as it happened. When Justice Roberts said, and we read, that the mandate was not valid under the Commerce clause, we reported it. Bill Hemmer even added, be patient as we work through this. Then when we heard and read, that the mandate could be upheld under the government’s power to tax, we reported that as well—all within two minutes. … Fox reported the facts, as they came in.

When is process journalism appropriate?

Clemente defined “news” generously; the real news was the justices’ opinion, not Shannon Bream’s reading of it. But that’s exactly what process journalism is: a diary of the reporting itself.

“Process journalism.” Jarvis wrote to me on Thursday, “is about news itself as a process and journalism following that process, again, with due caveats. Process journalism is about covering a truly breaking story — a storm, a riot, a revolt, say — and recognizing that fact in how we cover it.”

Kelly McBride, Poynter’s ethics faculty, agreed that this approach is something you use in breaking news, not “appointment news” — even complicated appointment news like a Supreme Court decision.

“In this case, all the facts were knowable; it simply required a finite amount of time and a certain skill to discern the most important facts,” she told me via email.

But what counts as a “truly breaking story”? Last year, in a post exploring the concept of process journalism, Jarvis cited Brian Stelter’s use of Twitter and Instagram to chronicle his reporting on the aftermath of the tornado in Joplin, Mo. for The New York Times.

Stelter didn’t live-tweet the storm itself; he live-tweeted his discovery of the damage. He was not the first reporter on the scene. He tweeted observations, thoughts and emotions as he pieced things together, without discerning what was most important or what the story was. It was a stream of consciousness.

So is it breakthrough journalism to live-tweet observations from a disaster, but simply bad journalism to report a portion of a court opinion?

If the difference is in what counts as breaking news, or that CNN and Fox News were wrong, consider this: It wasn’t storm reporting that moved Jarvis to write about process journalism back in 2009, but a New York Times article about tech bloggers who were comfortable reporting rumors.

In that story, Damon Darlin described how bloggers had reported rumors that Apple was negotiating to buy Twitter, even though they had not confirmed the story, had conflicting information, and even doubted that it was worth reporting. “We would have passed on reporting this rumor at all, but other press is now picking it up,” wrote Michael Arrington on TechCrunch.

Here’s how Jarvis sized up the bloggers’ approach:

This is journalism as beta. I make a big point of that in “What Would Google Do?” – that every time Google releases a beta, it is saying that the product is incomplete and imperfect. …

Newspaper people see their articles as finished products of their work. Bloggers see their posts as part of the process of learning.

What does the audience expect?

There is one important difference between what I see as process journalism (all of these examples) and what Jarvis does (everything but the Supreme Court reporting). That difference is audience expectations.

People following Stelter’s tweets knew they were observing a reporter at work. Arrington’s readers knew TechCrunch traffics in incomplete and unconfirmed information.

People watching CNN and Fox News on Thursday, however, probably were expecting an authoritative, definitive account. They weren’t expecting process journalism. I bet President Barack Obama didn’t know it when he saw the incorrect graphics on CNN and Fox News.

White House counsel Kathy Ruemmler, however, relied on SCOTUSblog. As CNN and Fox News were puzzling it out on the air, the people at SCOTUSblog were live-blogging: reporting in public, what they knew, as they learned it.

10:07 Amy Howe: We have health care opinion.
10:08 Amy Howe: Parsing it asap.
10:08 Amy Howe: The individual mandate survives as a tax.
10:09 Amy Howe: It’s very complicated, so we’re still figuring it out.
10:10 Kali: We are still here. Don’t worry.
10:10 Tom: So the mandate is constitutional. Chief Justice Roberts joins the left of the Court.

Now that, we can all agree, is process journalism.

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Steve Myers was the managing editor of Poynter.org until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens,…
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