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Upon Reflection: High stakes for calling the election

Alan C. Miller: "Upon Reflection"

Alan C. Miller

Founder and CEO

Note: This is the third in a periodic series of personal reflections on journalism, news literacy, education and related topics by  NLP’s founder and CEO Alan C. Miller. 

As Election Day nears, Democrats are haunted by the media-driven sense of inevitability that Hillary Clinton was headed to a historic victory four years ago — until she wasn’t.

Voters may also recall television networks declaring Al Gore the winner in the battleground state of Florida in 2000 — only to rescind that call hours later. The next day, the networks prematurely called George W. Bush the winner — only to see the subsequent recount of Florida ballots stretch 37 days, until it was resolved in Bush’s favor by the Supreme Court.

This year, the landscape is far more complex and combustible than it was during those two hotly contested races. This is a watershed moment for American journalism — and particularly for the networks and The Associated Press, which also calls election outcomes. The stakes for democracy are sky-high.

In the face of commercial and competitive forces, it is imperative that anchors, reporters, producers, editors and news executives exercise restraint, precision and care with any results they project and races they call, and that they are open about their process for doing so. They need to provide contextual reporting and analysis, explaining that delay does not necessarily signal dysfunction and careful counting does not automatically suggest corruption. And they must prepare the public for a more protracted — yet constitutional — process for determining the outcome of this contest.

America is now far more polarized than it was in 2016, when Donald Trump lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College. Trust in institutions, including the news media, has declined. The country is restive amid a devastating pandemic, protests for racial justice and the growing power of baseless conspiracy theories.

Two factors could make projecting and counting this year’s balloting more challenging: historically high voter turnout and a record number of mail-in votes that, for the first time, may outnumber those cast in person. They also increase the prospect that the winner will not be known on Nov. 3.

Moreover, both parties have expressed doubts about the legitimacy of the process: Trump has repeated baseless charges that mail-in voting opens the door to widespread fraud, which his opponents say is intended to sow doubt if the president is declared the loser or faces that prospect when all the votes are counted. Democrats have expressed concerns about voter suppression and intimidation. Both issues are likely to be highly charged currents in the election narrative.

In preparing this column, I asked CNN, Fox News, NBC News, ABC News, CBS News and The Associated Press what they are doing differently this year. (Only CNN failed to respond.)

They said they are training, going through drills and preparing for myriad contingencies. They vowed to be deliberative, restrained and transparent about projecting and calling races. Some said they have expanded their teams and plan to tap more reporters on the ground in key states and more experts on American history, election law and constitutional law. Others promised new video walls, data visualization tools and augmented reality to help voters better understand the process.

In the aftermath of the 2016 embarrassment, at least some have upgraded their process for projecting results.

Two years ago, recognizing that voting patterns have changed, Fox News and The Associated Press collaborated with NORC — an independent research center at the University of Chicago — on a survey that Fox News calls Voter Analysis and the AP calls VoteCast. NORC describes it as “a probability-based state-by-state survey of registered voters combined with a large opt-in survey of Americans conducted online.” Fox says that this year, it will interview 100,000 voters and non-voters prior to, and on, Election Day; the AP says the sample size is “more than six times the size of the legacy exit poll.”

NBC News, which shares its data with MSNBC, says it will also rely on information from interviews with more than 100,000 voters that began on Oct. 13. It has expanded both its in-person early exit polls and its phone polling this year. CBS News says that it, too, will have surveyed 100,000 people from all 50 states by election night.

I recommend paying special attention to Fox News and the AP on election night. Given its influential and supportive coverage of Trump, particularly by its evening opinion hosts, Fox could play an outsize role. The Fox News decision desk, led by Arnon Mishkin, is widely respected for its professionalism and independence.

(You may recall the unusual scene on election night in 2012 when Mishkin stood his ground when GOP strategist Karl Rove insisted, on air, that Mishkin had called Ohio — and thereby the presidential race — too soon for President Obama.)

In its statement to me, Fox News described “the integrity of our Decision Desk” as “rock solid. We will call this presidential election carefully and accurately, relying on data and numbers.”

The AP is continuing its historic practice of not projecting winners; instead, it announces them only when it has determined there is no way for the trailing candidate to catch up. Notably, the wire service did not call Trump’s victory until 2:29 a.m. on election night in 2016 and did not call the race for either Gore or Bush in 2000 (or call a winner on election night in 2004 and 2012).

Lacking sufficient tallies and other information to declare an unofficial winner on election night, the networks will need to remind viewers that each state has deadlines for certifying their vote (typically two to three weeks after Election Day) and they have until Dec. 8 to settle post-election legal challenges. In addition, 21 states and the District of Columbia have automatic recounts if the margin of victory is below a certain number or percentage or if there is a tie.

“The networks are extremely aware of the many problems they might be confronting,” Jeff Greenfield, a longtime broadcast journalist and media analyst, told me. “Nobody in the media has any interest in throwing gasoline on a fire.”

For democracy’s sake, let’s hope he’s right.

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