I was just asked about CNN’s, Fox’s, and others’ screw-ups with the announcement of the Supreme Court health decision in the context of process journalism. I disagreed with the characterization. My response:
I could not disagree more strongly with your characterization of this as an error of process journalism. Hardly!
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.
The entire decision was made and written. CNN, Fox, and others listened to a bit and went with it.
The New York Times, on the other hand, essentially admitted it didn’t understand enough to make some things clear. It was oddly phrased — saying that something about the decision couldn’t be known when, instead, it couldn’t yet be understood fully. Whatever. At least The Times used restraint and appropriate caveats. We saw a similar case in the Italian murder appeal of Amanda Knox, when TV said too much too soon.
(Later: What the Times said in its earliest version was: “It remained unclear whether the court officially upheld the mandate or chose a more technical path that effectively allowed it to stand.” Well, yes, it remained unclear to The Times because The Times hadn’t had the opportunity to absorb and understand the decision and its implications yet. It said so.)
In true process journalism, the news itself is a process, not a fait accompli like a court decision. Process journalism 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.
This was a matter of TV news making bad assumptions on too little information and speaking too soon. That has been the danger since 24-hour news immemorial.
The real lesson here is that the scoop is and always has been a dangerous act of journalistic narcissism. Did it truly matter if one outlet “broke” the same information that other outlets — and the world of the internet — knew a second before another? Or was it indeed worse when those outlets got it wrong because they were hasty and stupid? They were still seduced by the scoop, which has no value in media that operates at the speed of the link.
Journalists must think how they can best add value to information, not how they can most rapidly repeat it. Explaining the story is adding value. Getting it wrong detracts value and devalues credibility.
CNN and Fox and others fucked it. It’s as simple as that. It’s not a matter of process journalism. Please!
After I wrote that, my correspondent wrote back quoting my discussion of process journalism with references to, for example, the misreports in the breaking, moving, confusing stories of tornadoes and shootings. I added this:
That’s talking about things that are presently unknowable by the reporter but are known, the reporter hopes, by others. (Does anyone know of prior problems with this politician? Does anyone know whether the power is still out downtown?). That is *not* the case here. Everything that needed to be known by CNN and Fox was knowable. They just spoke before they knew it. I repeat: That’s fuck-up journalism, not process journalism. Please do not libel the one with the other.
LATER: Steve Myers of Poynter continues to go down the road of blaming process journalism for CNN’s and Fox’s fuckup. I was responding to him above.