Sunday, July 22, 2012

Why Social Media Caused CNN and Fox News to Get ObamaCare Wrong

Last month, CNN and Fox News incorrectly reported that the Supreme Court had ruled the Affordable Healthcare Act unconstitutional.
In their haste to break news, producers from the two cable channels failed to read beyond page two of Justice Roberts’ ruling before making the call to go live. Unfortunately for the overzealous producers, the clarifying passage regarding the decision wasn’t until page three. 

That CNN and Fox could get wrong what is arguably the defining moment of the presidency reveals that speed can trump accuracy in today’s newsrooms. This is perplexing. For journalists, the pursuit of speed at the expense of accuracy is irrational behavior. So how could this come to pass - two networks, on the same day, on the same piece of news, each creating their own “Dewey DefeatsTruman” moment? 

The answer? You guessed it, social media. 

Social media has given the journalism community a set of metrics for measuring influence. The existence of these metrics has created a culture that incentivizes journalistic practices that score well in social media influence but not necessarily quality of reporting. The main problem: social media fails to provide punishment for inaccurate reporting, yet delivers an immediate windfall of Retweets, Followers, Likes and Page Views for a scoop. 

Behavioral psychology has proven that immediacy plays a major role in determining the effectiveness of conditioning. Given that context, the CNN and Fox producers have a strong incentive to scoop ObamaCare. On the other hand, even though they know that inaccurate reporting is undoubtedly damaging to the brand, social media does not deliver negative reinforcement. 

It seems ridiculous that journalists would value such trivial rewards as a retweet. Yet, journalists may be more susceptible to social media conditioning than most people. Each year, social media becomes more important to how journalists do their job. Today, there isn't a newsroom out there that isn’t constantly monitoring Twitter. The reality is that Twitter is more important to journalists than it is for any other profession. That journalists would value the set of metrics that go along with a tool that is indispensable to their profession is no surprise at all.