TV election coverage short on accuracy

Published 6:00 am Monday, November 20, 2000

Republicans are now asking for an investigation into the TVnetworks’ calling of election results so quickly after pollsclosed, and on the effect it had on the outcome of the presidentialelection. Some have even suggested a possible conspiracy.

Was there a media conspiracy? Not likely. Should the TV networksreview their election night coverage policies? Most definitely.

On election night as the TV networks tripped over themselves tobe the first to call a state, the fairness and the accuracy of thepredictions were on my mind. Several networks showed a clock in theright side of the screen ticking off the final seconds before acertain time zone’s polls closed. Then, in a flurry, declarationswere made even before the first vote was counted.

In the competitive world of TV news, being first has become somuch of an obsession that accuracy has become an afterthought. Ifound myself caught up in the fury, clicking back and forth todifferent networks to see who had called the latest state.

When Florida was suddenly removed from the Gore column to the”too close to call column,” red-faced commentators beganback-peddling. Unbelievably, they did it again in the wee hours ofWednesday morning as they declared Bush the winner, only to see his50,000 vote lead dwindle quickly before their eyes.

How did the four networks make the same mistake — twice? It wasthe competitive compulsion to satisfy the ferocious appetite of theInternet age that wants to know now! Details that once were thecornerstone of news reporting are now afterthoughts lost in aeffort to be first with the story.

The networks’ mistake is that they are drawing their informationfrom the same data base and not relying on their own individualefforts. In Lincoln County, we had one network poll watchercovering the Halbert Heights precinct. Her exit poll data was sentinto a central data base in New York that was being compiled forall four TV networks.

Those exit poll numbers, combined with a statistical formula,created the calculation that declared a winner. Only problem, inthe case of Florida there was an error in the formula. Because eachof the networks drew on the same information, they all got itwrong.

Is what the networks are doing wrong? You bet it is, and serioussoul-searching is being conducted in the TV network newsrooms andboardrooms. Their actions on election night further damaged analready ailing news media credibility.

Hopefully, this soul searching will result in a more responsiblereporting environment that makes details and accuracy moreimportant than being first.

Write to Bill Jacobs at P.O. Box 551, Brookhaven, MS 39602.