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When Breaking News Threatens To Break Ankles, Too

With the Supreme Court scheduled to release its most anticipated rulings this week, CNN’s embarrassingly wrong interpretation of the Court's Obamacare ruling a year ago was fresh in reporters’ minds. No media organization wanted to become the social-media laughingstock this time around. To that end, on Monday, New York Times Washington bureau chief David Leonhardt emphasized the newspaper’s commitment to accurate, if not necessarily speedy, interpretations of Supreme Court rulings in a blog post:

We realize that people will be eager to know what a ruling means as soon as it comes out (and you can read the decision yourself when it is posted on the court’s Web site). But we also want to point out that the immediate descriptions of any ruling may not be very meaningful.... The moment that we feel comfortable with a ruling’s basic meaning, which could be almost immediately, we plan to explain the decision. But we promise not to bombard you with guesswork or unintelligible legal technicalities.

The Times’ cautiousness was evident after Tuesday’s ruling in the Voting Rights Act case Shelby County v. Holder, when the organization sent two separate “Breaking News” alerts—one announcing that the Court had reached a decision on the case, and a second one, 46 minutes later, with an explanatory report on the ruling. The paper took a similar approach with Wednesday's ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act.

But outside the Supreme Court building this week, the determination of media organizations to come in first was still evident—especially on Wednesday. In the hours leading up to the Court’s announcement, TV reporters chased down demonstrators in the crowd as staff members tried to keep up, fumbling with equipment and swearing when they dropped it.

As the clock neared 10 a.m, the scene momentarily slowed down. Photographers drenched in sweat staked out spots while TV reporters, bathed in natural and unnatural light alike, prepared to go on air. All stared at their iPhones or iPads, scrolling impatiently for news of any kind, and constantly checked their watches. Jackets were buttoned, mics turned on. They exchanged looks—this is it—and took deep breaths. “Alright," a staff member at the front lines warned, "this is going to happen very quickly, guys.”

And it did. At 10:01, two runners exited the Court with papers in hand. The first, in a suit with his tie flying behind him, delivered a clean handoff to NBC’s Pete Williams. Williams posted on Twitter the same minute that a decision on DOMA had been reached, and explained a minute later that the Court had found the law unconstitutional.

The second runner, in a black dress and bright purple sneakers, handed off to Fox News reporter Shannon Bream. She flipped through the decision and read it aloud to her crew as she made her way to the camera, two staffers adjusting the microphone on her lapel. Fox first tweeted the news at 10:04.

Other TV reporters looked back anxiously for their runners, who all appeared about a minute later, deftly weaving their way through the crowd (although, on Tuesday, a runner almost tripped down the stairs). The Huffington Post's main Twitter account reported the DOMA ruling at 10:05—the same time that the HuffPostMedia account noted, "CNN chyron still reads: 'Outcome of key decision soon.'" In other words, CNN was being careful not to pull a … CNN.