Getting election night right

After months of anticipation and sleepless nights, it’s finally upon us. But enough of National Sandwich Day—there’s an election going on. Election Day has dawned with its familiar sense of climax, even though, with so much early voting happening, it’s not really a discrete event this year; as Vivian Schiller argued recently, in an op-ed for CNN, today is more accurately “the last day of voting” in “election season.” Our collective sense of tidy chronology has been skewed, too, by months of pandemic life. As the late sci-fi writer Douglas Adams once observed, “time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so.” Sadly, National Sandwich Day remains a day, not a season.

Heading into the last day of voting, we still don’t know how long election season will last: we may have a pretty clear idea of the presidential result by the small hours of the morning, or vote counting—and attendant litigation—may drag on for days, even weeks. (Some important down-ballot races, meanwhile, look likely to head to runoffs.) As soon as the pandemic made it clear that voting would look very different this year, experts and media watchers urged news outlets, and the TV networks in particular, to begin managing their audiences’ expectations—by communicating consistently that results might take a while to come in this year, and that that’s okay, not evidence of a problem. Initially, it wasn’t clear that newsroom leaders had taken such advice to heart. In early August, Ben Smith, the media columnist at the New York Times, reported that he’d asked senior news executives and anchors about their election night plans, and been struck by the “blithe confidence” of some of their answers. At the highest levels of the industry, Smith wrote, “it simply hasn’t sunk in how different this year is going to be—and how to prepare audiences for it.”

New from CJR: How to read the polls

Since then, some reassurance. In recent weeks, many major news organizations have communicated clear information about the voting process, and pointed out that Trump is lying when he says that votes counted after election night are somehow illegitimate. In recent days, top network executives have outlined aspects of their coverage plans in interviews with various media reporters, and have uniformly stressed the importance of caution, patience, and transparency. Journalists have rehearsed different scenarios; at CNN, Sam Feist, the Washington bureau chief, sent his colleagues copies of the testimony that news executives gave when Congress called on them to explain the debacle that they oversaw in 2000, when networks prematurely called Florida for Al Gore, then prematurely called it for George W. Bush.

This year, on-air staff intend to explain developments extra carefully—including possible red or blue “mirages” in states that count early ballots (which are generally expected to favor Democrats) and day-of votes (which may be better for Republicans) at different times—and will report ongoing vote counts with reference to total expected votes cast, and not the typical measure of in-person precincts reported. Executives at the Associated Press, a respected caller of election results, plan to show their work, explaining—in interviews, if necessary—why they have and haven’t made certain calls. (Going public in such a way, the AP’s David Bauder writes, conflicts with the AP’s typical “company culture.”) And the Times won’t have an election night “needle” projecting a national winner—as it did, nightmarishly, in 2016—because mass mail-in voting makes the state of play harder to calibrate. Instead, the paper will have individual needles for three states—Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina—that offer detailed data and are expected to count quickly.

All these precautions are welcome. Still, there’s a lot that could go wrong. If the presidential election is close or contested—or if some states simply take their time about counting all votes cast, as is their prerogative—we’ll have to deal with a vacuum of confirmed information at the noisiest possible time. I, for one, am skeptical that even disciplined TV journalists can go for days without ever talking loosely into the void, and that’s before we get started on the pundits, whose speech is harder for networks to control. After the Democratic caucus mess in Iowa, back in February, pundits yammered about which candidate, strategically, should declare victory before a single result was known; this time, the stakes are even higher, and some of the people who are likely to be on our screens—Rick Santorum, for example, or Chris Christie—are hardly models of informational purity and restraint. Given their clout with Trump’s base, there’s special interest in how Fox News and its personalities may handle prolonged uncertainty. The network’s number crunchers are respected, and its news anchors will helm election night coverage. But the Sean Hannitys of the world are expected to show up from time to time, and the longer we have to wait for a result, the more time there will be to fill.

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On Sunday, Jonathan Swan, of Axios, reported that Trump intends (if it seems advantageous to him to do so) to prematurely declare victory, then fight to throw out all uncounted votes. Trump, for what very little that it is worth, denied Swan’s story; still, it’s all but certain that he’ll say something, at some point, that militates against electoral integrity. If he does so in televised remarks, the networks are all likely to carry them live, in part because executives believe the president’s words to be inherently newsworthy; instead of muting Trump, CNN’s Brian Stelter reported yesterday, the networks plan instead to supply “vigorous corrections and visual proof that the race is too close to call.” As George Stephanopoulos, of ABC News, told Michael M. Grynbaum, of the Times, recently, “I don’t think we can censor the candidates. But we have to be vigilant about putting whatever comments are made in context.”

Refusing to let your privately owned news platform be a vehicle for speech that attacks the basic principles of democracy, of course, is not censorship—and as some network sources have acknowledged, there is a theoretical line here: one of them told Stelter that they may deny Trump airtime in the event of widespread violence in the country. This line is hard to draw: What happens if there’s no widespread violence until Trump goes on TV to incite it? Media companies can only control what they can control, but it seems perverse to make meticulous fire-safety plans and then to hand your keys to a known arsonist. Whatever Trump says, there will be ways for journalists to report it without showing it live. (One tactic for handling disinformation—the “truth sandwich” approach—would be especially appropriate on National Sandwich Day.)

As my colleague Pete Vernon and I wrote recently, a recurring media failure of the Trump era has been news organizations’ lacking the self-confidence to stand up for their basic values, and instead giving in to broken impulses of “objectivity” and “fairness,” as framed around competing partisan interests. Tonight, self-confidence will be more important than ever. The networks, in particular, must not be squeamish about denying a platform to operatives looking to subvert democracy. And while caution is the order of the day, excessive caution—which can verge on superstition—would be counterproductive; as New York magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi told Stelter on Sunday, the media is “worried about getting it wrong, but that shouldn’t make us not note the obvious when it’s happening.” In the event that the picture becomes pretty clear pretty quickly, we should say what’s clear about it; failing to do so could leave a confidence gap for a malicious actor to exploit, just as unwarranted overconfidence about a call could have the same effect.

There’s no reason to think that news organizations’ number crunchers—who will work in isolation from the on-air reporters and pundits—will fail in this regard: as Sally Buzbee, the AP’s executive editor, put it recently, calling races “isn’t magic. It’s math and analysis.” How anchors convey those calls—and anything and everything else that happens in the meantime—is a more open question. As Schiller and Garrett M. Graff wrote recently in an Election Day coverage guide for CJR, it’s important for the news media to communicate individual election problems and incidents in a way that doesn’t undermine confidence in the electoral system writ large (as long as that confidence remains warranted, of course). Such advice needn’t be limited to Election Day (or season): laying out what we know with confidence, and what we don’t with humility and transparency, is how all reporting ought to work. As results start coming in, it’ll be essential that we get this basic balance right. This is no time for illusions.

Below, more on the election:

  • Meanwhile, on social media: As CNN’s Stelter writes, when it comes to calling the election, “social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter say they will take their cues from the major networks and the Associated Press.” As long as no result has been verified, Facebook will pin a notification at the top of its news feed notifying users of the fact, and the company also has a suite of undisclosed tools at its disposal that it uses in countries where election-related violence is possible. Twitter, for its part, will add labels to candidates’ tweets if they prematurely claim victory. Mike Isaac, Kate Conger, and Daisuke Wakabayashi, of the Times, have a useful roundup of what both platforms, plus Instagram (which Facebook owns) and YouTube, plan to do during and after the vote.
  • How to read the polls: For those of you who are still looking at the polls (and let’s face it, you are, aren’t you?), CJR’s Shinhee Kang interviewed Drew Linzer, of the online polling company Civiqs, about how we might best read them. “As we’re scanning the numbers on Election Day, Linzer’s tip was to bear in mind the margin of error—one to three percentage points, which, as we’ve learned, can be decisive,” Kang writes. “Even a well-executed poll is fallible.”
  • How to read the exit polls: The Washington Post reports that there will be two main sets of exit polls this year—one conducted by Edison Research and shared jointly with CNN, ABC, CBS, and NBC; and another maintained by the AP, Fox News, and a research outfit affiliated with the University of Chicago. But Laura Bronner and Nathaniel Rakich, of FiveThirtyEight, warn that such polls aren’t always reliable, and could be even less so this year in light of the pandemic. Edison “has changed its methodology so that the ‘exit polls’ you see on November 3 will actually be a combination of traditional exit polls of Election Day voters and phone polls of mail voters. In certain states, there will also be exit polls of early in-person voters,” Bronner and Rakich write—an arrangement that will be “much tougher to get right than the traditional exit poll.”
  • In audio land: The Daily, a flagship podcast of the Times, will broadcast a live Election Day show from 4pm Eastern. Michael Barbaro, The Daily’s usual host, and Carolyn Ryan, a deputy managing editor at the paper, will host, and senior Times journalists including Maggie Haberman and Dean Baquet, the paper’s top editor, will stop by. Elsewhere, Bob Garfield and Brooke Gladstone, who host WNYC’s On the Media, will also host a live election show, with guests including Mike Pesca, Alec Baldwin, and Mychal Denzel Smith.
  • A key ruling: Yesterday, a conservative federal judge threw out a Republican-led lawsuit aimed at casting aside nearly one hundred thirty thousand votes that were already cast in Harris County, Texas, an area where lots of Democratic voters live. The plaintiffs appealed aspects of the ruling, but within hours, their appeal was thrown out, too. The Texas Tribune has more details. Reporters were mostly unable to access the start of the initial hearing due to in-person access restrictions and a call-in line that didn’t work; according to Law & Crime, journalists were eventually able to listen in, but the quality remained low.
  • If Biden wins: For CJR, Howard Polskin outlines what we should expect from right-wing media if Biden wins. “If Trump pushes the ‘rigged election’ narrative, we can look forward to an epic pity party. His Twitter feed will become bloated with heated rhetoric, and right-wing media will echo every moan, whine, and grievance,” Polskin writes. Longer term, “a whole world of media outlets will face a tricky pivot to something else.”
  • Dixville’s Midnight Runners ride again: Soon after midnight, the residents of tiny Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, cast their ballots, and all five of their votes went to Biden. So far, he has shown great restraint and not declared victory nationwide.
  • A resource: The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has a legal hotline that is available for any journalist covering the election who might need it. Details here.


Other notable stories:

Related: Whatever happens in the election, we mustn’t forget about all the voter suppression

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.