Commentary: Why the news media shouldn't declare a winner on election night

By Austin Sarat, The Fulcrum on

Published in Political News

The reporting done on election night 2018 offers a cautionary tale for the news media as we approach Nov. 3.

Because more than a quarter of that year's 116 million votes were mailed, initial projections of the midterm results turned out to be wildly inaccurate. They showed Democrats making only modest gains in the House, far less than the historical average for the party not in the White House. As Jake Tapper announced on CNN that night, "This is not a blue wave."

Only when all the votes were counted, three weeks later, did Americans learn precisely how wrong that was. The Democrats prevailed by unprecedented margins and picked up many more seats (40 of them) than usual for the out party.

Now, with some 80 million mail-in ballots expected, accurately predicting winners before the count is complete looks to be even more perilous than two years ago. This is because millions of those envelopes will not even have been opened - let alone the contents tabulated - when the news anchors sign off the morning after Election Day.

Absent the sort of landslide that polling doesn't now foresee, it may be many days before enough votes have been counted to make clear whether the winner is President Donald Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden.

As a result, we need new norms to govern what the media does two weeks from now.


All news media, especially cable and broadcast TV, must exercise restraint and avoid the customary scramble to be first to declare a victor. Such caution does not come naturally to many journalists or the organizations where they work. And it runs against the grain of a culture increasingly attuned to receiving instant information, even if it later turns out to be inaccurate.

Yet, for the country to have any chance of avoiding post-election chaos, it is crucial for the media to resist premature declarations.

The race to announce the result, and the dangers of doing so, are not new. In 1948, because of an impending printers' strike, The Chicago Tribune went to press before all the votes were in to get out their morning edition. Editors relied on polls favoring Republican Gov. Thomas Dewey of New York over President Harry Truman and went with the infamous headline, "Dewey Beats Truman."

Four years later TV coverage of election night began in earnest. Right from the start, ABC, CBS and NBC competed to see which of them would be the first to project the winner.


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