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Lessons of the Internet Age: Think Before Writing

June 29, 2012 10:24:44 am
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By Alexa Capeloto

Photo by mdfriendofhillary, via Flickr

As most of the media world knows by now, CNN and Fox News blundered——badly—in their rush to report the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act on Thursday.

Both networks reported that the court had struck down the individual mandate portion of the law, then sheepishly retracted minutes later when it became clear the court had in fact upheld all portions of the law.

The mistake will probably go down as one of the major media gaffes of the year, an Internet Age lesson in the perils of absorbing, condensing and publishing complex news as it breaks.

But before this solidifies into a case study for journalism class, I submit another candidate for consideration. It was also a Supreme Court ruling earlier this week, and it also involved major outlets presenting seemingly contradictory news.

Yet in this case no one was wrong, exactly, and no one called for any retraction, let alone reflection.

On Monday, the court upheld one key provision of Arizona’s controversial immigration law and blocked three others.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed S.B. 1070 into law in 2010, called the ruling a legal victory and tweeted that it was “a proud day,” while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the court “was right to strike down the vast majority of the law” after the federal government challenged it.

Half-Glass Sorcery

Such half-glass sorcery (It’s full! It’s empty!) is typical among politicians, PR reps and pundits. But even mainstream news outlets fell under the spell, making headline and lead choices in their breaking web coverage that left opposing impressions on busy or distracted Monday morning readers.

To recap, the court’s 5-3 ruling let stand a provision that allows police to verify the immigration status of people they stop, but struck down three other provisions: one that makes failure to register with the government a state misdemeanor; one that prohibits “unauthorized aliens” from working or seeking work; and one that allows warrantless arrests of those suspected of deportable offenses.

Typically in high-profile court rulings and verdicts, one side prevails and that side predominates in the news coverage. We look at the headline, photo and lead and get a sense (if not the substance) of the outcome. In this case, the follow-up coverage has suggested a loss for Arizona, but that’s debatable because of the preserved provision. And it certainly wasn’t the consensus Monday morning. 

Within an hour The Washington Post posted the headline “Supreme Court rejects much of Arizona immigration law,” with a story that began by detailing the struck-down provisions. The top of the New York Times story, “Supreme Court Rejects Part of Arizona Immigration Law” (my emphasis), detailed the preserved provision.

The Wall Street Journal’s headline focused on what was upheld versus what was rejected: “Supreme Court Allows Immigration Checks.” Same with The Arizona Republic: “Arizona immigration law: Supreme Court upholds key portion of Senate Bill 1070.”

Among the television news network websites, CNN’s topper was perhaps the boldest, making the court sound almost like an angry parent: “Blow to Immigration Law. Court to Arizona: You Went Too Far.” Fox News went with a kinder R word than “rejection” in its fairly balanced headline: “Supreme Court reins in Arizona immigration law, but leaves key provision in place.”

Even if you could determine at a glance whether the ruling was more about rejection or preservation, you might be misled about what exactly was rejected or preserved.

As some outlets explained in their breaking stories, and as almost all of them fleshed out in the next day’s comprehensive coverage, the Court did not “strike down” or “uphold” any facet of illegal immigration itself. This was not a decision about the issue, but about a state’s right to legislate an issue normally left to the federal government.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, stated that “the issue is whether, under preemption principles, federal law permits Arizona to implement the state-law provisions in dispute.”

In other words, it’s not about whether it is okay for cops to say “Papers, please” when they suspect someone is undocumented, but whether a state has the authority to legislate such matters. In fact, Kennedy makes clear that the opinion “does not foreclose” any constitutional challenges to the preserved provision.

Focus on Ruling

That is not as easy to convey in a headline, nor as relevant to those invested in the immigration fight (and who isn’t these days?), so news outlets focused on the effect of the ruling rather than the ruling itself.

The bottom line is, when the news is nuanced – and both of these court decisions certainly were – we readers have to devote more time and attention than we might normally give a Monday morning headline scan. The title and top paragraph of one report will be inadequate and perhaps even in conflict with the next one.

Fortunately, the same technology that drives instantaneous reporting also provides direct access to source material. In the Arizona case, the best information is in the state senate bill and Court ruling themselves. If a 76-page document full of court-speak is too daunting, outlets like the Times and the Journal help by annotating and highlighting key portions or providing basic explainers.

Thursday’s mistake was troubling, but it was clearly drawn and quickly corrected. The more interesting conversation might be about the everyday media contradictions that can lead different readers in very different directions – if we let them.

Alexa Capeloto is an Assistant Professor of Journalism at John Jay College and former enterprise editor at the San Diego Union-Tribune. She welcomes comments from readers.

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