By the time I found out about the Supreme Court health care ruling that was no longer the main story. I was on a cruise ship that only got CNN and by the time I saw the news I was seeing CNN anchors apologizing for misreporting the ruling. That drove me a little batty. Earlier that week the Arizona immigration decision had come down and as I was packing up to head to the airport I had the rare (not rare enough) opportunity to watch live TV news coverage of a Supreme Court decision. I was surprised and frustrated when I saw an anchor asking an on-site reporter (because, you know, she’s more credible with the Court behind her) a question about the case and the reporter saying that they’re reading the blog sites as fast as they can.
The Supreme Court publishes opinions. They may be a bit dense if you’re only used to reading Dan Brown and John Grisham, but they really aren’t that bad. Especially if you’re an attorney who’s used to reading court rulings. So why, I thought, don’t they just get someone to read the opinion rather than reading secondary sources like blogs? And how does CNN (and Fox, I learned later) screw up the biggest Supreme Court case in decades?
Luckily, we don’t have to wonder. Tom Goldstein, Publisher of SCOTUS Blog (that stands for Supreme Court Of The United States in case you didn’t know) published an amazing article called We’re getting wildly differing assessments that details, minute by minute, how the two largest news networks screwed up. It’s a long article, but worth every word and I highly encourage you to read it. I’m convinced it will win many, many awards and may be one of the most important pieces of journalism in years that deals with the state of journalism. And it’s a great read.
But beyond being a fascinating and important story, the article has several social media lessons for us.
Understand your choke points
I’ve blogged before about how most judges don’t understand social media and the Supreme Court is no different. In 2010, at least three Justices (including the Chief) showed they had absolutely no clue how texting worked or how it differed from a pager. I can’t tell if it was technical incompetence, arrogance, or some mixture of the two that resulted in multiple failures by the SC to understand and plan for their distribution choke points when releasing the opinion to the public:
- Planning to distribute the opinion electronically only on the web site. The Court decided to distribute the opinion in two ways: first, in paper form to reporters in a special room in the Court itself; and second, by posting it electronically to their web site. But they failed to take into account the massive demand for the opinion. When the web server was overloaded with requests, the opinion couldn’t even be loaded to the site. This led to some of the initial confusion since the only people with the opinion had physical copies and had given conflicting readings of the opinion. It left a confused public wondering which reading was correct. (And make no mistake, this was their failure–read on to see how SCOTUSblog accounted for the increased demand.)
- Turning down a request to email the opinions. A few years ago the clerk would email the opinion to the parties at the same time as the web posting but they discontinued that. For this case, SCOTUSblog requested the court do this again, anticipating the server would be overloaded. The court said no. The server got overloaded. This meant that for 30 minutes the general public couldn’t read the opinion–only reporters and their analysts could–because the server was so busy the Court couldn’t even load the opinion onto the website.
Contrast that with the extraordinary measures taken by SCOTUSblog to ensure they could distribute their analysis of the opinion:
- SCOTUSblog increased their capacity big time. Not only had they increased their capacity so that they could handle 10x their previous maximum traffic which is 15x their daily max (wow), they increased their capacity so much they could even absorb a targeted denial of service attack for several minutes without a scratch. That alone is impressive.
- Redudancy, redundancy, redundancy. SCOTUSblog had six team members “running nine computers on eight separate Internet connections” in order to ensure they had access to post on the blog once they needed to. That’s redundancy.
Sure, the Supreme Court might figure that people will eventually get the opinions and get it right–or at least didn’t think that two large networks could get it wrong–but it is telling when they have a better system for distributing paper copies than digital ones. It’s great that they post the opinions on their own site and they want their site to continue to be the best location, but don’t make it the only location. And the SCOTUSblog article correctly points out some of the harm in creating a situation where the news media gave different readings. Since insurance companies and hospitals would lose or win depending on the outcome, the Supreme Court unknowingly created a 15-30 minute window of arbitrage for stock traders as CNN/Fox got it wrong while wire reports like Bloomberg got it right. And a lot of economic damage can be done in 15-30 minutes.
Social media lesson: When getting your message out matters, as it should in social media, then you must consider your distribution strategy in terms of choke points. It’s one thing to limit your message to a single platform if you’re trying to engage a particular audience but if your goal is to get your message out then don’t limit the distribution. Otherwise your distribution may fail and others may end up telling your story for you–and they might get it wrong.
Ask who are your reporters
You may not have actual reporters covering your social media posts, but you still have an audience and a vital part of that audience are the ones who will bring your story to even more people. These are your reporters. In the Supreme Court’s case, and maybe yours, they’re actually reporters. (I’m tempted to quote Three Amigos’ here: “For us, El Guapo is a big, dangerous man who wants to kill us.” But I won’t.)
I don’t understand the history or politics behind the Supreme Court not granting SCOTUSblog press credentials. SCOTUSblog itself seems to be beyond the point or they’ve long since given up on the issue, but they mention in the article how they don’t have independent credentials. One of their team members has press credentials given other reporting work they do. The author also says several times how he’s not a journalist (I disagree, based on this article). But this all misses the point.
Reading the article you see how important, how vital, SCOTUSblog was to interpreting the opinion for other press outlets. The White House was watching SCOTUSblog’s live blog post to see what they would say. There was a large teleconference with various reporters so they could understand the ruling. Heck, even Fox News was watching the live blog (unlike CNN, which also allowed Fox to correct their mistake sooner).
For the Supreme Court to not recognize that SCOTUSblog is an authority on their opinions is misguided. The Supreme Court will always have the last word on their opinions–they belong to the Court after all. But the Court could also take a cue from social media by understanding who are your influencers/reporters/authority figures.
Social media lesson: If you have rules that preclude your reporters from being considered reporters, change your rules. If you find yourself intentionally mislabeling your biggest influencers then you’re the only one who can get hurt. Oh, and listen to their suggestions (like changing your distribution strategy).
“It’s only good to be fast if you’re right”
I first mentioned this quote in another blog post but it’s turning out to be a powerful one. I first heard it from a JetBlue social media representative and she was talking about its importance in public relations (specifically crisis communications). Turns out it has a lot of social media applicability.
SCOTUSblog makes some fantastic points about how important it was to get the opinion’s analysis right rather than fast. They even mention some of the comments being posted to their live blog as CNN and Fox were already reporting on the outcome as SCOTUSblog was taking its time to read the opinion. And there are a few jabs at the networks for making this a Breaking News story when everyone knew it was coming out and had access to it at the same time.
We know how quickly messages can spread on social media–that’s one of the main advantages and disadvantages of the technologies. Which makes it doubly important to get your message right in the first place. Especially when you know you’re covering a hot topic like the health care ruling. And especially if you have all of your distribution channels tightly integrated like CNN–the SCOTUSblog article does a great job detailing how CNN had a harder time retracting their error precisely because they are so integrated. Fox News, not being as tightly integrated, actually had an easier time fixing their mistake because they had less assets to fix.
Social media lesson: Slow and right > Fast and wrong. Down the road people are less likely to remember if you broke a story seconds before your opponent, but they’ll absolutely remember if you got it wrong.