By Helen Coster
In preparing for election night, some top U.S. television news executives see a cautionary tale in a notorious November evening two decades ago.
After major networks projected Vice President Al Gore the winner in the crucial state of Florida, they pivoted in the wee hours to calling his Republican rival George W. Bush the next president. The margin was so slim, Gore conceded, then took it back an hour later.
The election wouldn’t be decided for more than a month. The only loss that night was the networks’ credibility.
“I think 2000 still sort of lingers over everyone,” said Fox News Media President Jay Wallace, whose network was among those that initially called Gore the winner. “As competitive as networks can be, you do know that you’re calling a presidency and you don’t want to be wrong on something like this.”
In this year’s matchup between Republican U.S. President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat, TV networks are facing greater pressure than ever to report election results accurately and without unwarranted speculation. Among the nation’s – and the networks’ – challenges are a president stoking fears of ballot fraud, a deeply divided electorate and the specter of a prolonged vote count, which raises the potential for protests, violence and lawsuits.
In separate interviews with Reuters about their plans for election night, top executives at five major news networks described a focus on restraint, not speed; on transparency about what remains unknown; and on a reassuring message that slow results don’t signify a crisis.
Election night “is not going to be about storylines or narratives or projections or predictions,” said NBC News President Noah Oppenheim. “It’s going to be about: ‘What do we know in any given moment?’ and staying firmly focused on only those facts.”
Compared to election night features such as the white board Tim Russert scrawled on in 2000, many of this year’s tools will be decidedly more scientific. Networks will be showcasing their investments in more polling, deeper data analysis, and additional reporting on the mechanics of voting, voting integrity and misinformation.
Walt Disney Co’s DIS.N ABC News and ViacomCBS Inc VIACA.O- owned CBS News have voter integrity units dedicated to topics such as foreign election interference and how the vote is tallied, state by state. CBS is using its “Battleground Tracker” that combines polling, files on voter participation, U.S. Census data and historical patterns.
Comcast CMCSA.O-owned NBC News has doubled the size of its “Vote Watch” team, which includes 24 correspondents, reporters and producers who specialize in issues such as voting rights and misinformation campaigns. For the past year, the news division has been reporting on voter sentiment in five “bellwether” counties in Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Arizona.
This will be the first presidential election in which the major TV networks will get data from different providers, raising the potential for divergent perspectives on election night returns.
Since 2018, Fox Corp’s FOXA.O Fox News has partnered with the Associated Press to replace traditional in-person exit polls with online and telephone surveys that aim to reach early and Election Day voters. The survey data will be combined with real-time results tabulated by the AP to help make projections. Fox and the AP left the National Election Pool consortium, which includes the three broadcast news networks and AT&T T.N-owned CNN. The consortium will rely on the firm Edison Research for exit polls and results as they come in from each precinct. Reuters has a distribution deal with the NEP for 2020 election data.
Networks may benefit from an adjustment in pre-election polling since 2016: Weighting state polls for education, not just gender and age. In the 2016 election, a voter’s education figured prominently in whether they would vote for Trump or Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton. Whites without college degrees turned out for Trump in greater numbers.
For this Election Day, the executives said, slow-but-sure is the watchword.
“We will project states’ [results] in the normal way. But getting to that point of confidence … is a more complicated process, a longer process,” said ABC News President James Goldston. “And we just need to be transparent with the audience about what that looks like.”
During the 2000 election, Bush’s narrow margin of victory in Florida led to a recount. After more than a month of political and legal battles, the Supreme Court halted the counting in a 5-4 decision that further divided the nation – and still roils some Democrats.
That drama could seem tame compared to this time around, because partisan divisions have only become more fierce. The coronavirus pandemic has made many people leery of voting in person, leading record numbers to vote in advance. Tallying these ballots could take weeks. Polls have shown Biden with a substantial lead, but some political experts say it is entirely possible Trump will be the front-runner on election night, with Biden emerging as the victor only after all the early and mail-in votes are tallied.
The Supreme Court could become the final arbiter in any legal challenge – just as it was in 2000. But its potential role already has provoked controversy as Republicans vow to quickly install a replacement for the late liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which would tilt the court to the right.
In this divisive environment, networks will be under the microscope for any perceived biases.
“Because the media is increasingly polarized, and the audiences for some networks are increasingly tribalized, calls that seem to be one-sided and aren’t accompanied by similar calls from other networks are just going to land as sort of political tactics rather than election science,” said Steve Coll, dean of Columbia Journalism School.
Covering this presidential election requires detailed reporting at the state and county levels, according to Coll. The need for this granularity was underscored in 2016, when Clinton won the popular vote but lost the electoral college to Trump. The contest was lost in a few battleground states, sometimes by very narrow margins – in Michigan, by about 11,000 votes.
Calling close races will be particularly treacherous this year, Coll said. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have automatic recounts if a margin of victory is too narrow. In some states it’s going to be hard to tell on election night not only who won, but also whether the margin will trigger a recount.
The key for networks is being upfront about what is known and unknown, the executives interviewed by Reuters stressed.
“Given the dramatic increase in absentee and vote by mail votes that will be part of this year’s election, it will be all that much more important (to) remain transparent with the viewers and readers at all times about what that vote count represents” on election night, said CNN Political Director David Chalian.
The TV executives said their networks will be focused not just on what precincts are reporting, but on the expected political makeup of early and mail-in voters.
If a campaign claims victory without sufficient evidence or disputes a network’s projections, executives say, the networks will report on those developments. The networks’ calls in elections are made by “decision desks,” and are typically based on a combination of exit polls, data from previous election cycles, and actual vote results that come in.
CBS News President Susan Zirinsky said the key is to prepare audiences for “the multiple plays that could happen this night.”
“This election is totally unpredictable,” she said.