Failing Grade  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   January/February 2001

Failing Grade   

Most network campaign coverage was shallow and poll-driven. And then there was Election Night...

By Deborah Potter
Deborah Potter (potter@newslab.org) is executive director of NewsLab, a broadcast training and research center, and a former network correspondent.     



I T'S TIME FOR THE quadrennial grade-the-media exercise, and for predictable promises not to make the same mistakes again. But this time, the exercise is more than academic. It's essential to determine what role television news played in the closest election in a century and to figure out where we go from here.
Let's start before the election night debacle.
In some ways, television coverage of the 2000 campaign was better than four years ago. Some local stations offered time for candidates to address viewers directly and aired stories that tried to make sense of the issues. But there were many missed opportunities for coverage that might have helped vacillating voters.
The broadcast networks, in particular, were AWOL at several critical points in the campaign. For the first time, two networks, NBC and Fox, declined to carry a presidential debate live. And the networks' convention coverage was scandalously weak, especially on CBS, which seemed to think a rerun of a newsmagazine more worthwhile than the opening night of the Republican National Convention.
The standard defense was that viewers could get a surfeit of political news elsewhere, on cable or online--conveniently ignoring the fact that many American households don't have access to either. In addition, more than 80 percent of Americans say they don't seek out political information. Instead, they come across it "by happenstance," according to a recent poll by the Pew Center For The People & The Press, something they're much less likely to do if broadcast television gives politics such short shrift.
Yes, the 24-hour news channels saw their ratings rise substantially as the campaign neared Election Day, but the overall numbers were still tiny compared with the broadcast news audience.
And then there were those interminable tracking polls. Everybody had one almost every night. Never mind that they turned out to be mostly right. The focus on poll results consumed the networks to the detriment of more substantive coverage. Almost two-thirds of the political stories on the three major networks' nightly newscasts were poll-driven, according to Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution, who followed the coverage closely. "Polls provide the framework on which the stories hang," he wrote. "Take away the framework, and the stories collapse."
How was that helpful to people still trying to make up their minds in the final weeks of the campaign? It wasn't. The networks dutifully reported that a fairly sizable group of voters was undecided, and left it at that. They'd done their issue pieces, you see, back during the primaries. Never mind that most Americans weren't paying attention at the time.
Still, there were some laudable efforts to help voters get to know the candidates as people, such as MTV's "Where Were You at 22?" which aired during the primaries, and ABC's "Family Business" in the fall. At the local level, Seattle's KING-TV invited the candidates for governor to answer questions from an undecided suburban couple over dinner at their home. All three major candidates agreed. Citizen-focused stories on stations like WCCO-TV in Minneapolis and KOCO-TV in Oklahoma City also made sure that voters' voices were heard.
But all that good work may be forgotten in the flurry of recriminations over the bad calls on election night. On CBS, Dan Rather blamed technology for the Florida debacle. "To err is human," he said, "but to really foul up requires a computer." Nonsense. Computers don't decide what goes on the air. People do. And those human decisions, made under intense competitive pressure, resulted in the networks' calling Florida for Gore before polls closed in the Panhandle, retracting that call, and then putting the state in Bush's column, before finally pulling it back to undecided.
The networks will never admit that their first erroneous call made a significant difference to voters in later time zones, but it's clear that the subsequent hours of falsely based analysis left viewers ill served and confused. A budget-driven decision a decade ago came back to haunt the networks, who made the same mistake by relying on data from the same source.
If anything needs to be reexamined before we start covering the next campaign, it's how the networks make their election calls based on statistical models and exit polls. But we shouldn't stop there. The election night mess should force all television journalists to reconsider how they deal with mistakes.
Viewers deserved far more of an explanation than they received that night. Sure, it's embarrassing to be wrong, but it's far worse not to fess up quickly. Learning that lesson could help the networks begin the long, slow process of restoring their damaged credibility.

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