When I meet with student journalists, I try to impart this fundamental lesson: Getting the news first is great, but getting it right is essential.
In the social media age, that lesson may seem downright quaint. As one reporter young-mansplained me: “It’s never wrong for long.” If there’s an error in reporting, the theory goes, the crowd will soon set it straight.
If the news subject is the Kardashians, Cardi B, or the Arizona Cardinals, perhaps we can live with that ethic. But when it comes to reporting the results of the 2020 presidential election, there can be no tolerance for error. Not when an overly quick news trigger — in this case, a premature projection of victory — could threaten the future of our nation.
With less than a month until Election Day, that danger is clear and present. Given the anticipated number of mailed-in ballots — at least half the total, in many projections — it is likely that the result of the national election will not be definitively known on Nov. 3, and perhaps for many days after.
Meanwhile, our president and his acolytes sow seeds — no, full-grown, towering trees — of doubt in the integrity of the election, citing false instances of mail-vote fraud. More ominously, President Donald Trump has repeatedly refused to promise an orderly transition of power should he lose the final count. He suggests that only a “rigged” election could result in his defeat, and famously told a white supremacist group to “stand back and stand by” as the election unfolds.
One scenario goes this way: Votes cast in person on Election Day show Trump ahead in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and other battleground states, along with the solidly Republican states. Based on those totals, exit polling, and historical patterns, TV analysts start filling in the electoral map in red, and the president declares victory. In the following days, as mail-in ballots, heavily Democratic, are counted and the totals move to a Joe Biden victory, Trump disputes this and his supporters take to the streets in violent defense of his incumbency.
Likewise, an early and errant projection for Biden, fueled by potentially inflated estimates of his dominance of mail-in votes, could lead to protests and violence from the left if that margin fizzles.
We’ve seen election night confusion before. Most infamous is the Chicago Daily Tribune’s “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline from 1948. And in 2000, we watched TV anchors suffer whiplash as they called Florida first for Gore, then for Bush, then for no one. That election, of course, took more than a month and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to resolve.
The circumstances two decades later are far different, and far more volatile. As Jennifer Brandel, senior strategist for the Election SOS Project, told me: “If there’s going to be a transition of power, it’s very unlikely to be peaceful. But there are things journalists can do to help make The Day After less violent.”
Those things include preparing the public for the likelihood of a delayed result. But the most important thing journalists can do on election night: Forget getting it first, in service of getting it right.
Some election experts think reporters should simply muzzle themselves on Nov. 3. An open letter from 21 former presidents of the American Political Science Association warns against networks trying to scoop each other and pleads: “No state winner should be declared until the number of votes remaining to be counted has been certified to be less than the margin between the two-major party candidates.”
That’s an absurd standard and would mean that even sure-thing states as Washington (blue) or Wyoming (red) would not be called on election night. But the poli sci profs are onto something. In this unprecedented election, making projections based on historical precedents and using traditional tools like exit polling is dangerous journalism.
So how about this: The major news national outlets — the Associated Press, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Big 3 networks, CNN, MSNBC, and, yes, Fox News — should agree not to compete on election night, but to collaborate. In the weeks between now and Nov. 3, put their best data and election analysts together to come up with a solid set of standards and protocols to which they will all adhere. No one calls a state until they all agree to — even if that takes a few days.
Making sure they get it right, together, may be the first big step in uniting our broken nation.
David Boardman is the dean of the Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple University and the chair of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, the nonprofit owner of The Inquirer.