Election night was a case study in how media can make news, not just report it.
Tuesday night's reports by radio and television networks that Florida's electoral votes went to Al Gore, then to "too close to call," then to George W. Bush, and back to uncertainty were mishaps that misled people and challenged the networks' credibility.
The practice of "calling" states for one candidate or another - especially with just the smallest of percentages of the vote in - was irresponsible when pre-election polls, taken together, predicted a tight race.
Those mistakes had real consequences. Foreign countries sent congratulatory messages, perhaps to the wrong man. Voters on the West Coast might have been unduly influenced. Mr. Gore conceded to Mr. Bush by phone and came close to conceding in public. Newspapers published "Dewey Defeats Truman"-type headlines.
In the heat of ballot counting with so much at stake, journalists need more professional caution and less competitive instinct. Patience and common sense would have prevented this national debacle. The long evening would have been better spent deftly explaining potential scenarios than rushing to declare a winner.
The networks said they got some bad data from the Voter News Service consortium, a service that provides election data to five TV networks, ABC, NBC, CNN, Fox, and CBS, and a major wire service, the Associated Press that owns the news service (other networks like National Public Radio can subscribe). Even though VNS has helped cut costs for these media by pooling the effort of conducting exit polling of voters, this mass reliance on one set of data carries the inherent danger of committing a mass mistake.
The VNS record for predicting elections has been mostly good. But in a close race, the media must be extra careful, especially when more people are voting by absentee ballot. Figuring out just what, if anything, went wrong with the VNS prediction models is a first step. Now, the media will have to redouble efforts to build trust with the public, who already hold a high degree of cynicism and skepticism toward them.
In this instant-communication age, the need for the news media to pause before passing along information as fact has never been greater.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society