Terrorism Trumps Release of Election Review  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   November 2001

Terrorism Trumps Release of Election Review   

A consortium of the nation's most prestigious news organizations has stalled the release of its presidential election ballot analysis, citing commitment to coverage of September 11 as the cause.

By Janet Kolodzy
Janet Kolodzy teaches journalism at Emerson College.     


A year ago, hanging chad commanded headlines. Now, a major reporting project on the troubled Florida presidential vote can't make it into print.

The September 11 terrorist attacks have waylaid the election ballot analysis by a consortium of the nation's biggest and most prestigious news organizations. None of the consortium members have had the time, the resources or the newshole to devote to the recount effort, they say. In fact, they didn't even have the time for a conference call to talk about the future of the project until September 26, two weeks after the attacks and a week after news organizations were to start analyzing the data.

"The people who had been working on the Florida ballot project as of 10 a.m. September 11 are working on the coverage of the war on terrorism," says Doyle McManus, Los Angeles Times Washington bureau chief. And even if the reporters, editors and data analysts were available, the space is not, noted Associated Press Managing Editor Michael Silverman. "To present all that material right now would be unfair to AP's more than 1,500 members in this country because they would have trouble making full use of it," Silverman says.

Tom Fiedler, executive editor of the Miami Herald, which did its own ballot analysis, published in April, points out that every newspaper in the country has probably far exceeded budgetary limitations on news space because of the terrorism story. "To properly tell the recount story would require significant expansion of the paper beyond what papers could afford right now," he says.

The consortium is the last major media effort to analyze the Florida ballots to determine what went wrong with the electoral system on November 7, 2000. Both the project's cost and the amount of time collecting the data exceeded original estimates. The now indefinite delay in releasing the data and the fact that the country's preoccupation with Florida is long since past raise questions about whether there'll be any interest in the results at all.

Editors of the Associated Press, CNN, the Tribune Co. (which owns the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and numerous other media outlets), the New York Times, the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Palm Beach Post and St. Petersburg Times decided in December to review 175,000 questionable ballots cast in the November election (see "Strange Bedfellows," May). The group hired the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago in January to review overvotes (ballots indicating two or more candidates chosen) and undervotes (ballots that were not clearly marked).

In mid-April, NORC and the consortium suffered a setback. Kirk Wolter, NORC senior vice president of statistics and methodology, said the research team discovered it missed some entire precincts in its first review of ballots. It repeated its effort, which doubled the price tag to about $1 million and extended the data collection into midsummer.

In the meantime, the news organizations were developing computer programs to analyze the data once they got them from NORC. The data transfer was tentatively set for mid-September. It never happened.

"We have the programs written, but no data," says Dan Keating, a database editor for the Washington Post. "NORC has the data but no programs." During the September 26 conference call, consortium members agreed that the data shouldn't change hands just yet.

John Broder, New York Times Washington editor, and other consortium editors dismiss speculation that patriotic sentiment played a role in their decision. "Other people are reading things into it," Broder says.

Since no one has analyzed the results, no one knows if the review questions the validity of the George W. Bush presidency. But the editors maintain that wasn't the point of the review anyway. "It's not just a story on who won; it's more complex than that," says Bill Rose, deputy managing editor of the Palm Beach Post. "We're looking at how the election system responds to more pressure than it was ever designed to handle."

Media watchers say publishing the results will be worthwhile no matter when that happens. Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, calls the analysis "an absolute national service," needed to find out what went wrong in the election, to learn how to count votes better and to determine the best way to do recounts. "The legitimate question on the table is how to build a better balloting system," says Jan Schaffer, executive director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism. She says the framing of the story should not focus on who won but on "how to build an electoral system to ensure the confidence of voters."

But some acknowledge that it would be difficult to find an audience for any recount story right now. "Nobody's panting for this," says Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He adds that he can accept the judgment that people are more interested in other things and that news organizations' resources are better used elsewhere at this time. But Hess says the review findings need to come to light eventually.

A few consortium members hope it could be done by the end of the year, but as of mid-October, no date had been set. "We had long ago abandoned any hope of being fast or timely," McManus says. "We'll publish when we are able to calmly and confidently analyze the data."

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