Networks' crystal ball cracks on election night

It's 'Dewey Defeats Truman' redux as print and TV media fumble over Florida.

There's nothing the media hates worse than having egg on its face, but this week, there's a lot of washing up to do.

News anchors and newspaper editors were left anguished yesterday after an election that left their credibility in question and raises concerns over a method of exit polling that the networks started a decade ago as a cost-saving measure.

"History is being made because of mistakes by the media," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for the Excellence in Journalism in Washington. "Clearly, they're going to have to exercise more humility and more caution."

Media miscalls on Tuesday night -which included initially giving Al Gore the state of Florida and declaring George W. Bush the victor early Wednesday morning - could have had impacts on both voters and the campaigns. While winners were being declared in the East, people were still voting out West. The perennial question: Does this affect turnout among the late voters? Even the candidates were confused: Al Gore called Mr. Bush to concede the race, only to retract it later.

"Could you pass the crow?" CNN's Judy Woodruff asked her colleagues after the announcement was made that Florida was not Mr. Gore's, after all.

In an echo of 1948, when headlines announced that Dewey had defeated Truman, newpapers here and overseas got caught by the false predictions. Based on the fact that Gore had called Bush to concede the race, The New York Times printed 115,000 copies with headlines saying that Bush appeared to have won - only to have to print a new front page shortly after. Mr. Rosenstiel says that although papers were faced with being embarassed, their mistakes had less impact than the network gaffes. And he considers the networks' declaring Bush the winner after 2 a.m. the more questionable of the two calls.

"It shows the flaw with our media system, this pressure to be first, to report early. This reliance on flawed television reporting system is something that needs to be reexamined and fixed," says Jeffrey Chester, head of the Center for Media Education.

As networks analyze exactly what happened - some reports say that the Florida call could have happened because of data inputted incorrectly or faulty modeling - one outcome could be a closer examination of the system they have used since 1988 to collect voter information. For example, ABC News concedes it was a "fundamental problem" and is investigating steps to take.

The Voter News Service, a consortium owned and operated by ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox, and the Associated Press now serves as the only source of information for the press after an election. Mr. Rosenstiel says it was the result of the networks trying to cut costs and make news operations more profitable.

"This wouldn't have happened before 1988, because each network did its own exit polls. That makes us [the press and the public] more vulnerable to mistakes," he says.

One possible way to improve VNS findings is to work in conjunction with the campaigns, but Rosenstiel points out that could cause ethical problems by influencing what the campaigns were themselves reporting. But no matter what approach is used, people will always want to know the outcome as soon as possible. "We've known for a long time that there was a weakness in doing exit-poll result predictions, although most of the time it holds up," says Robert Steele, a media ethicist at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Mr. Chester feels the networks never did a good job of explaining how the errors occurred. "Clearly they need to take their finger off the ratings trigger and begin to report this more professionally," he says. "Hopefully there will be not just soul searching, but some meaningful course of change."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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