The modern media environment damages public understanding of complex issues as much by incentivizing frequent small inaccuracies as by way of bots and deliberate misinformation. Let’s look at another April 2024 example of sloppy journalism that leaves the wrong impression.

In April the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear an appeal of the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Mckesson v. Doe garnered significant news coverage. The case involved a purely legal question about the breadth of liability for injuries sustained at a protest.

Most mainstream outlets reported accurately about the Supreme Court’s decision. But whether because of bitter polarization over the issues at the heart of the litigation, or the tastes of their readership, or simply the intense competition for clicks, it was perhaps inevitable that sensationalism and emotion would infect some of the coverage.

For starters, here is a clear, complete-yet-brief summary of the Supreme Court’s action and its legal implications: take 6 minutes and listen to my colleague Tara Grove.

Now, compare the way some advocacy journalism outlets covered the story:

An outlet called Courthouse News Service was even sloppier, running the headline “BLM protest organizer held liable for officer’s injuries fails to earn Supreme Court review,” and repeating the factual mistake in the text of the article. Another supposedly non-ideological law-focused outlet, Above the Law, featured a post by its social media manager with the headline “… And There Goes the Right to Assembly (Nice While it Lasted).”

Having listened to Tara Grove’s explanation of the case, it would be evident that none of these stories get it quite right.

To be fair, in most of the linked stories you can get to most of the truth if you read all the way to the end. But one of the empirical truths discussed in chapter 4 of my book is that far fewer people do that today. Instead, the glut of information discourages readers from reading the full story. Instead, they skim headlines and ledes and draw conclusions from there. But for some of these stories, a reader must read the entire story in order to dispel the misimpression created by the headline.

There was a time when mistakes or editorializing in news coverage would have been considered breaches of journalistic standards. Maybe they still are in most news organizations. But perhaps economic necessity and the competitive realities of the marketplace mean that they are tolerated as excusable error more often than they once were.

And for advocacy “news” outlets that seek to build loyalty to one ideology or political party and antipathy to the other, spin is part of the business model. Research shows that Fox News, for example, has regularly misled its viewing audience about politics. Their willingness to mislead seems to be constrained mostly by the risk of liability for defamation.

In chapter 4 of Climate of Contempt I quote historian Timothy Snyder, discussing television news:

Everything happens fast, but nothing actually happens. Each story on televised news is ‘breaking’ until it is displaced by the next one. So we are hit by wave upon wave but never see the ocean. . . . Watching televised news is sometimes little more than looking at someone who is also looking at a picture. We take this collective trance to be normal. We have slowly fallen into it.

The stories linked in the bullet points above look like “print” analogs of the problem Snyder describes. The imperative to be fast trumps other goals. All of which suggests the wisdom of withholding judgement on – even withholding consumption of coverage of – breaking stories until all the facts are in. Maybe we should all wait for the whole truth, contextualized, before drawing those conclusions. – David Spence