Dewey Defeats Truman – again!

The US Presidential race in 1948 was apparently decided when the Chicago Tribune decided to publish their now infamous headline “Dewey Defeats Truman” (Wikipedia link). As it happened, Truman had defeated Dewey in an upset victory. The rather embarrassing mistake was a combination of an early press deadline, early polls and depending upon someone who had been reliable in their predictions previously. What was worse was that the early editions had predicted a significant reversed result, with a sweeping victory for Dewey. Even as other results came in indicating that this wasn’t so, the paper stuck to the headline, while watering down the story.

Ultimately, roughly 150,000 papers were printed that were, effectively, utter and total nonsense.

Because he’s a President, I doubt that Truman actually used the phrase “neener, neener”. (Associated Press, photo by Byron Rollins, via Wikipedia)

This is a famous story in media reporting and, in many ways, it gives us a pretty simple lesson: Don’t Run The Story Until You Have the Facts. Which brings me to the reporting on the US Supreme Court regarding the constitutionality of the controversial health care bill.

Students have to understand how knowledge is constructed, if they are to assist in their own development, and the construction of what is accepted to be fact is strongly influenced by the media, both traditional and new. We’ve moved to a highly dynamic form of media that can have a direct influence on events as they unfold. Forty years ago, you’d read about an earthquake that killed hundreds. Today, dynamic reporting of earthquakes on social media save lives because people can actually get out of the way or get help to people faster.

I’m a great fan of watching new media reporting, because the way that it is reported is so fluid and dynamic. An earthquake happens somewhere and the twitter reporting of it shows up as a corresponding twitter quake. People then react and spread the news, editing starts to happen and, boom, you have an emergent news feed built by hundreds of thousands of people. However, traditional media, which has a higher level of information access and paid staff to support, does not necessarily work the same way. Trad media builds stories on facts, produces them, has time to edit, commits them to press or air and has a well-paid set of information providers and presenters to make it all happen. (Yes, I know there are degrees in here and there are ‘Indy’ trad media groups, but I think you get my point.)

It was very interesting, therefore, to see a number of trad news sources get the decision on the health care bill completely and utterly wrong. When the court’s decision was being read out, an event that I watched through many eyes as I was monitoring feed and reaction to feed, CNN threw up a headline, before the decision had been announced saying that the bill had been defeated.

And FOX news reported the same thing.

Only one problem. It wasn’t true.

As this fact became apparent, first of all, the main stories changed, then the feeds published from the main stories changed and then, because nobody had printed a paper yet, some of the more egregious errors disappeared from web sites and feeds – never to be seen again.

Oh wait, the Internet is Forever, so those ‘disappeared’ feeds had already been copied, pictured and cached.

Now, because of the way that the presenting Justice was actually speaking, you could be forgiven for thinking that he was about to say that the bill had been defeated. Except for the fact that there were no actual print deadlines in play here – what tripped up CNN and FOX appears to have been their desire to report a certain type of story first. In the case of FOX, had the bill been defeated, it’s not hard to imagine them actually ringing up President Obama to say “neener, neener”. (FOX news is not the President, so is not held to the same standards of decorum.)

The final comment on this story, and which should tell you volumes about traditional news gathering mechanisms in the 21st century, is that there was an error in a twitter/blog feed reporting on the decision which made an erroneous claim about the tax liability of citizens who wished to opt out of the program. So, just to be clear, we’re talking about a non-fact-checked social media side feed and there’s a mistake in it. Which then a very large number of traditional news sources presented as fact, because it appears that a large amount of their expensive resource gathering and fact checking amounts to “Get Brad and Janet to check out what’s happening on Twitter”. They they all had to fix and edit (AGAIN) once they discovered that they had effectively reported an error made by someone sitting in the room, typing onto a social media feed, as if it had gone through any kind of informational hygiene process.

Here are my final thoughts. As an experiment, for about a week, read Fark, Metafilter and The Register. Then see how many days it is before the same stories show up on your television, radio and print news. See how much change the stories have gone through, if any. Then look for stories that go the other way around. You may find it interesting when you work out which sources you trust as authorities, especially those that appear more trustworthy because they are traditional.

(Note: Apologies for the delay in posting. As part of my new work routine, I rearranged some time and I realised that posting 6 hours late wouldn’t hurt anyone.)