US Elections 2016

TV networks' big worry: Voters won't trust their forecasts

ABC News anchors and correspondents rehearsing for the big event - coverage of the US elections. With a divided electorate, big segments of which are poised to question the veracity of today's results, traditional media has its work cut out trying to
ABC News anchors and correspondents rehearsing for the big event - coverage of the US elections. With a divided electorate, big segments of which are poised to question the veracity of today's results, traditional media has its work cut out trying to be be scorekeeper.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • An intense public distrust in the media is threatening American TV networks' traditional role as election night scorekeeper.

There is a divided electorate, big segments of which are poised to question the veracity of today's results. Republican contender Donald Trump has refused to say if he will concede in the event of a projected defeat. And new digital competitors plan to break the usual election-night rules and issue real-time predictions long before polls close.

The era of network anchors serving as the ultimate authority on election results is over. And scrutiny on big media groups, when 70 million people might tune in today, is likely to be harsher than ever.

"We're surrounded by so much false information and aggressive misinformation," said ABC News president James Goldston, who will oversee coverage from a Times Square studio built for the occasion.

Network executives have said credibility is their first concern, and they hope to tune out competing chatter and focus on what they can control: getting it right.

TREADING CAREFULLY

We're surrounded by so much false information and aggressive misinformation. The pain of getting it wrong in this environment would be very long-lasting.

MR JAMES GOLDSTON, the president of ABC News, on the importance of credibility in TV networks' election coverage.

To ensure independence, network statisticians are typically quarantined in an undisclosed location; some have their smartphones taken away. And despite the competitive pressures, network executives say they are willing to be patient.

"There's no question there's added scrutiny this year," said Mr Steve Capus, executive editor of CBS News. "If anything, I think that means we're going to take our time to get it right."

Still, troublingly for the networks, making correct calls in swing states and the Electoral College count is, in this partisan climate, no guarantee of praise. Some Trump supporters are already sowing doubt.

"Prepare for the media to position their exit pollsters in the most Dem-heavy districts they can find," Mr Bill Mitchell, a pro-Trump radio host with a big following, tweeted on Sunday, adding: "You know they will." By Monday, his comment had been reposted about 900 times.

 

The spectre of the 2000 election, and the networks' botched calls of the Florida count, still haunts TV newsrooms. But there is little reason to doubt the networks' calculations, in part because they rely on the same sources of information - the "decision desks", which often employ dozens of statisticians and pollsters and get election returns from The Associated Press, which gathers data directly from state and local officials. The desks also subscribe to exit polls from Edison Research, which provide a glimpse of the numbers and are often used to characterise voters' concerns, demographics and reasons for supporting a candidate.

Each desk uses a proprietary model to project state-by-state winners. Fundamentally, network officials say, the goal is not to mess up.

But some new players see the network model - in which decisions are handed down Moses-style - as outmoded. "Saying 'trust us' isn't enough," said BuzzFeed News' editor-in-chief Ben Smith. "You have to demystify it."

BuzzFeed will be calling races in collaboration with Decision Desk HQ, a grassroots website that uses volunteers to collect voting data independently from The Associated Press and the news networks. The goal is to put a second set of eyes on an often opaque process, and to offer real-time commentary on why different news outlets may make different calls.

 

Separately, the Politico news website has joined hands with Morning Consult to poll voters after they have cast ballots, with information sought on whether they have voted, and how they voted: either using early voting, by mail or on Election Day in person. Politico said the results will be published during the day - but, like with the traditional network exit polls, those reports will not include anything that characterises the outcome of the race.

The start-up VoteCastr is publishing projections before polls close. Using observers in dozens of swing- state precincts, it aims to check live turnout data against its own surveys and historical models to generate an hour-by-hour estimate on Election Day of where the vote stands. The findings are to be published by Slate, along with prominent caveats as to what the data says and does not say.

The goal is not to project an ultimate winner, but to offer readers an informed snapshot of the race during the hours when, in the absence of official numbers, social media tends to rely on rumours.

Still, speculating on results while voting is ongoing has long been considered a journalistic taboo: "If you just put that data out to the public, it's kind of like trying to predict the score of a football game after playing 5 minutes," said NBC's director of elections John Lapinski.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 09, 2016, with the headline 'TV networks' big worry: Voters won't trust their forecasts'. Print Edition | Subscribe