Saturday, July 7, 2012

CNN's reporting mistake

Several days ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that President Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment, the Patient Protection and Affordability Act, (Health care reform), was constitutional. But embarrassingly, within minutes of the Court’s release of its decision, Fox and CNN first reported that the act had been declared unconstitutional. In retrospect the reason for the error was readily apparent. The Court had decreed that the mandate to buy insurance was coercive and thus not constitutional, but it was constitutional as a tax. Reporters who hurriedly flipped through the text, read the mandate argument first and the tax argument only later. Fox corrected itself within two minutes, but it took CNN a full seven minutes, after its announcement had circulated on the web and through its tweets. As one report notes, this error “was particularly embarrassing for CNN, which has suffered through one of its worst ratings quarters in several years, primarily due to a paucity of big news. The network eagerly awaited the court's decision, scheduled for 10 a.m., running a "countdown clock" on its screen for hours.”
In reporting on the mistake is the press making a “mountain out of a molehill?” Maybe, but a Buzzfeed report notes that CNN employees themselves were very upset. A half-dozen top on-air reporters and producers were “furious at what they see as yet another embarrassment to a network stuck in third place in the cable news race. ‘We had a chance to cover it right. And some people in here don’t get what a big deal getting it wrong is. Morons.’ ‘Shameful,’ another long-time correspondent told BuzzFeed. ‘It's outrageous and embarrassing,’ a third CNN staffer vented. ‘Maybe this will shake the company into understanding that CNN has not been the 'most trusted name in news' for a very long time.’” In an internal memo, CNN promised an investigation into the mistake. “Today we failed to adhere to our own standard; namely it’s better to be right than to be first. We take mistakes seriously, especially mistakes on such important stories. We are looking into exactly what happened and we will learn from it.”

At one level, an investigation hardly seems necessary. It seems clear what happened. The reporter, Jeffrey Toobin, who first got hold of the Supreme Court decision while inside the court, first read that the mandate had been ruled unconstitutional, and instead of reading on, reported this fact to Kate Bolduan, CNN’s congressional reporter. Everyone was primed to believe that should the mandate be declared unconstitutional the entire act would be ruled out of order. The pressure to be first with the news was great, so Toobin instead of urging caution until he read, however hastily, through the entire text, presumed that the legislation was dead.

Perhaps we can learn more from CNN’s response to the mistake than from the mistake itself. I suggest that the mistake stirred emotions that are stimulated by what we can call “extreme environments.” An environment is extreme when participants feel that the viability of the organization to which they belong is not secure and moreover, never will be. This feeling is linked to objective conditions, most importantly, hyper-competition. Witness for example the failure of Palm, the likely failure of Research in Motion (of Blackberry fame), and Yahoo’s stagnation; all companies, which not so long ago, symbolized the internet revolution and seemed on their way to becoming institutions.  

As we noted in an earlier post, CNN has been losing market share and standing as viewers have come to prefer news tinged by political bias, with Fox attracting viewers on the right, and MSNBC, viewers on the left. CNN’s reputation can therefore only be based on accuracy and timeliness. But viewers care less about the first, and the World Wide Web provides the second. This suggests that CNN lacks what marketers call a “unique selling proposition.” Instead, CNN makes money largely because it is included in the price of cable packages. Should cable companies “unbundle” their offerings, who will buy CNN? This is why it looks fragile, however many resources its reporters have presently at their command.

It seems straightforward that facing time pressure and competition people can make serious errors. The situation can create anxiety, clouding peoples’ judgment. But if the organization is experienced as fragile, the people who sustain it feel that the organization’s setting is unforgiving. One result is that errors feel more consequential than they might seem to outsiders. This may be why CNN staffers reacted so harshly to the mistake.

Thomas Kolditz a retired brigadier general, who led the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, for 12 years, has written about leadership in extreme situations. He suggests that in such situations, where for example soldiers make life and death decisions, there can be “too much motivation.” People do not need to be revved up.  Paradoxically, because the situation is so demanding in itself, additional emotional arousal can be detrimental. One is reminded here of the calm tone pilots sustain when, in facing flight emergencies, they collaborate with another and ground controllers to land a plane safely.

One question Kolditz’s work raises, is whether or not the investigation into a mistake should itself be conducted in an emotional context of low arousal that is, with dispassion. If so, what are the “design criteria” for such an investigation? For example, one criterion, might be that no single person is to blame. It is presumed that the total situation, which demanded everyone’s participation, is the source of the error. Another, might be that the most senior people take responsibility for what was the organization’s total response to the situation. It would be useful to imagine what other criteria would apply

But dispassion may prove difficult. Psychoanalysts speak of "persecutory anxiety" to describe a person who feels chronically under attack.  Extreme environments may induce this kind of anxiety.  One lesson we have learned from psychoanalysis is that when this anxiety predominates people may become punishing and unforgiving towards each other just at the moment when they need each other the most.


  1. I like your analysis, Larry, and I appreciate the invitation to contribute.

    I am thinking that a useful investigation would counter-balance the "total situation" unit of analysis with the additional principles of "interdependence" and "co-creation."

    Once brought to attention, the objective condition of an organization's interdependence is obvious. Interdependence may be especially salient when organizations operate in an extreme environment. Senior people at CNN can highlight this to foster a tone of collaboration, both in the investigation and in ongoing operations.

    The premise of co-creation, as I understand it, is that everyone involved has a contributory role in the state of the system. Setting blame aside, each individual examines and owns his/her part in the service of organizational learning and improvement. Senior people, as Larry suggested, could model this.

    When co-creation is coupled with an acknowledgement of interdependence, a dispassionate tone, and an ultimate "total situation" focus, CNN's internal investigation might yield valuable organizational learning.

  2. the idea of co-creation feels very sound to me, it is one way to implement a systems understanding of the mistake.

    I have another question, should the audit of the mistake also include some assessment of its consequences, as a kind of reality check? In other words perhaps there are two responses to mistakes in extreme environments, under-reaction and overreaction.

  3. As a former airline and military pilot, I can say that the calm, focused response crews have in an extreme situation comes in part from identifying the challenge correctly.

    The first problem I see with the CNN news crew is a disconnect about their task. Were they trying to be the first to release the story? The TV team to offer the best analysis? The most in depth response?

    The CNN crew did not seem clear in their own mind what the challenge was and therefore what they were doing.

  4. Amy -- Yes, despite their own rhetoric they focused on being first than being right. The question is why? I am proposing that the hyper-competitiveness biased their judgment.

  5. In his post Larry asked us to reflect on the 'design criteria' for the investigation set up by CNN. In this comment I want to reflect on this question.

    Constitutional law is an arcane and rather complex area of the law. It is a difficult body of law to navigate around because the legal issues are sometimes very distant from the immediate political ones. It is because it is arcane and complex that news associations have an important role. This role is to 'translate' from the events in the law to the rest of us the political and other import of the decision. This is often the role of CNN as it reports (and translates) information from difficult, complex environments to audiences in ways that make sense to those audiences. Set in this frame there is something for CNN to learn from this mistake.

    What then could CNN learn from this mistake by using Michael Lindsay's suggestion of focusing on 'interdendence' and 'co-creation'? A starting point would be that with hindsight it is clear that Jeffrey Toobin exposed CNN to a higher level of risk of making an error than he or CNN would choose or desire. In hindsight it is clear that Toobin used placed too great a weight on speed and efficiency and too little on the quality of the information that he provided to the CNN newsroom. It is important to be clear here. The problem is not that a small probability of making an error actually crystallized. Rather it seems clear that the methods used by Toobin exposed himself and CNN to a greater level of risk than he or CNN would choose or desire.

    With this as the starting point we could focus on points in the system that 'co-created' the publication of the error. One is downstream of the report by Toobin, that is, the failure of the Congressional Reporter - Kate Bolduan - to check the report. But it would be difficult for Bolduan to monitor Toobin's report without herself reading the Opinion.

    A second process to focus on would be the one that put Toobin in the Supreme Court as a reporter waiting for the decision to be handed down. There are several questions to ask here. One is did anyone in CNN brief Toobin about his assignment? It seems likely that CNN would have processes for briefing its journalists before they enter complex and difficult environments. A second question would be did Toobin himself reflect on his assignment? Did he imagine what it would be like to receive the decision and to be under pressure to file a report?

    The latter question sounds a lot like teams of health care professionals who work in the Operating Room. There is a requirement that these times take a 'timeout' before a procedure. The purpose of the timeout process is to have members of the OR team reflect on any particular concerns about a patient and mentally and physically prepare for this challenge.

    The timeout process in the OR has had mixed success. For many it seems to be an empty moment. Members of the OR team do not use it to reflect or prepare the challenges ahead. Where OR teams do use the process as a way of capturing likely challenges and preparing for them it seems that it is a useful and helpful process.

    It would be useful for CNN to reflect on whether its journalists, editors and others would engage in this kind of 'briefing' exercise. It may be a way of imagining the challenges facing journalists and preparing for those challenges. If this briefing exercise seems to be unhelpful to journalists and editors then this is an important fact. This is something that CNN could learn from this mistake.