MEDIA WATCH: Election coverage makes history for the wrong reason

The media's use of exit polling data to announce projected winners on Election Night backfired as voters in Florida confounded the experts.

The media's use of exit polling data to announce projected winners on Election Night backfired as voters in Florida confounded the experts.

The media's use of exit polling data to announce projected winners on Election Night backfired as voters in Florida confounded the experts.

ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, Fox News and the Associated Press went back and forth on who won the state, eventually declaring Bush the victor and therefore, the President-elect.

Then the media had to do an about-face, retracting that announcement, as the Florida race defied a quick resolution. But it was too late for some newspapers, which ran headlines based on projections that were reversed shortly thereafter. The Washington Post (November 9) described the historic chain of events as 'more than a black eye for some of the country's most elite news organizations.'

CARMA monitored coverage of the media's faulty projections. Most of it focused on the television networks, which explained that their actions had been based on flawed data, supplied by Voter News Service (VNS), a usually reliable firm. NBC justified its actions by saying, 'We made calls on good faith based on bad information' (Newsday, November 9). Apologies from Dan Rather and Peter Jennings appeared frequently, saying that they felt the public had been let down.

Nevertheless, most of the stories analyzed suggested that the media had bungled its handling of Election Night. Florida's Sun Sentinel (November 9) wrote, 'Television news went into a skid Tuesday night with an early call on Florida's crucial vote, and the rest of the media - from the Internet to newspapers - piled behind like a bad car wreck.'

Analysts and critics portrayed the mistake as reaching historic proportions.

The Center for Excellence in Journalism told USA Today (November 9), 'This makes 'Dewey Defeats Truman' look like a typo.'

In making their accusation that the media mishandled their projections, subsequent coverage blamed a hyper-competitive market and the rush to be the first to report who would be president. The Committee for the Study of the American Electorate expressed its concern to the Dallas Morning News (November 9): 'It is irresponsible journalism. This rush to judgment is dangerous and it leads to inaccuracies. It depresses the turnout and undermines the integrity of elections.'

The media were chastised for not exercising more caution and prudence before making their projections. The coverage analyzed by CARMA cited the possible impact of those early projections on the outcome of states where the polls were still open. Other reports questioned the wisdom of having all major news media base their projections largely from VNS - the only firm in its industry. Critics felt such a widespread dependence on a single company's data was a recipe for disaster.

There were indications in the coverage that the news outlets were taking the criticism to heart. A number of media outlets stated that they were reviewing all of their procedures associated with exit polling and projections.

CNN appeared to receive more coverage than other media outlets for its decision to review its policies.

While the nation awaits the final outcome of the Florida recount, there is plenty of time to consider the events of Election Night. In the immediate aftermath, no one seemed pleased with the media's performance.

- Evaluation and analysis by CARMA International. Media Watch can be found at www.carma.com.





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