This just in

As an American issue, health care may outlive most of the people now debating it, but it has provided a useful lens through which we can evaluate media operations.

On The New Republic blog, Amy Sullivan examined media coverage of the recent Supreme Court decision upholding the Affordable Healthcare Act and asks the question, "Who reported it first? Who cares." In her piece, Sullivan documents how two networks (CNN and Fox) initially reported that the Court had struck down the law, the exact opposite of the actual decision.

As it played out, Chief Justice John Roberts had voted to uphold the law, but not on the grounds that the administration had largely argued. CNN and Fox, eager to be the first to announce the Court's decision, failed to read the full ruling before "reporting" it. As Sullivan notes, "[T]he race to be first is no longer just a feature of news coverage but often the main factor driving it."

Sullivan's review also points to an extensive examination by Tom Goldstein of SCOTUSBlog ("SCOTUS" is U.S. shorthand for "Supreme Court of the United States), detailing how the announcement was reported. Though long, Goldstein's post is worth reading. It's sobering to learn that the Supreme Court declined to give SCOTUSBlog credentials that morning.

Very little of Sullivan's or Goldstein's reflection and understanding was on display the morning the decision was announced. As Sullivan notes, the consequences for our collective understanding were significant:

"Instead of talking about what the decision would actually mean in terms of the implementation of health-care reform, anchors asked their guests about the political implications—was this good or bad for Obama? What did it mean that Chief Justice Roberts had sided with the majority? Would this help Democrats take back the House in November?"

I'm not generally inclined to quote Stephen Covey, but his advice might actually work here. "Seek first to understand, then to be understood" could help media outlets slow down long enough to actually comprehend the stories they are covering. Oh, the places they could go.

Edited July 16 to add: While Stephen Covey may be the better known source right now, a reader points out that the Prayer of St. Francis (dated variously to the 13th and early 20th centuries) predates Covey's phrasing with some of its own: "Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand."

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.