And with looming threats of lawsuits and reports that President Donald Trump might declare victory before a large portion of ballots are counted, high-profile outlets like The New York Times pledged caution about naming who wins. On social media, Twitter said tweets about winners would be labeled as disputed until state election officials have announced them or major national news outlets have made public projections.
Maryland Today spoke with Mark Feldstein, the Richard Eaton Chair of Broadcast Journalism at UMD’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, about how media organizations make election calls, their past mistakes and what everyone watching the news and refreshing Twitter should do during an anxious week.
How does a media organization typically know when to say a candidate has won an election?
The networks hire statisticians and other experts in polling, who crunch the data to come up with their calls. In the past, that’s tended to largely be exit interviews of voters to give them a sense of where things are headed, and when the precincts start reporting in, they flag where key districts are. If deeply red or deeply blue districts are voting Republican or Democratic, that doesn’t mean much, but if some swing districts are going one way or the other, that matters.
Is the assumption that we know who wins the presidency on Election Night rooted in fact?
It has some rooting in fact. Most elections aren’t as close as the 2016 election was. 2012 was pretty clear cut, 2008 same thing, and 2004. It’s a rare election that things are so close that the networks aren’t basically able to call the results relatively early.
But now we are living in a deeply polarized time, and contests can be quite tight. Before TV networks started doing exit polling and bringing in experts, the public was used to waiting to get the results.
What is an example where the media’s election call was wrong?
The networks learned a big lesson from 2000. They were certainly chastened after erroneously calling the election first for Al Gore and then for George W. Bush. There can be a tension between getting it first and getting it right. The commercial and other pressures had been a bit more to get it first; this was such a big public black eye and a traumatizing one for the country at the time.
I think they pulled back after 2000 to be more cautious. But they can fall off the wagon. There has been criticism in the past for the networks calling elections too soon; even before 2000, there were lots of complaints. People on the West Coast would see who won based on the calls and not bother to show up (at the polls). That has all sorts of down-ballot ramifications.
How adequately are media organizations and social media platforms responding to the current situation?
It’s a challenge. If the president of the U.S. declares victory, even if it’s premature, that’s hard to ignore. If he goes out, they are going to cover him live, no matter what he says. What a president says is newsworthy, and the same applies to social media. The toothpaste is kind of out of the tube.
So how should people watch the results?
People should take a deep breath and relax a little bit if they can. It’s just going to take a while. This is an unprecedented election for many reasons, not least of which is COVID. So people just have to be patient and recognize that the people who vote (on Election Day) aren’t necessarily a representative sampling of the electorate.
It’s easy to think if there’s a delay in reporting there’s something fishy going on, but there isn’t—what do you expect when there are 100 million early ballots to count?