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Networks jumped the gun on election coverage, Baptist journalists say

NEW YORK (BP)–TV networks reported that Al Gore had won the state of Florida, but recanted just hours before they declared George W. Bush the president-elect, then took it back during a bizarre night of election coverage that left everyone, including Baptist journalists, disappointed and concerned.

The media’s handling of the presidential election has been a topic of conversation in journalism classrooms at many Baptist universities and colleges, and the consensus is that the networks blew it.

“I was very disturbed about the way the networks covered the election returns,” said Brad Owens, who teaches public affairs reporting at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. “I was particularly concerned to learn that the Voter News Service is the one entity doing exit polling for all the networks. I thought there was much more diversity in our national news coverage.”

Owens, who has a Ph.D. in political science from Georgetown University, said to see the national media taking shortcuts is distressing. “Should they really release exit polls while people are still voting?”

William Downs Jr., chairman of the mass communication department at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark., agreed. “This has certainly been a historic time,” Downs said. “I think this will cause some major changes in network coverage. I believe you may have seen the last of exit polls in its present form.”

As a result of the Florida incident, Downs said that viewers will be more skeptical when races are called.

“And I think the networks will be a lot more wary of the information they receive,” Downs added.

Al Ortiz, executive producer of CBS’ election coverage, told the Associated Press the network felt when it called the race for Bush that his lead in Florida was too big to overcome. But CBS miscalculated how many Gore votes were still uncounted, he said.

“It looked like a solid margin that was going to hold,” Ortiz said.

Said NBC election producer Jeff Zucker: “We made mistakes. But we made mistakes on good faith based on bad information. If you make a mistake and own up to it, that’s fine.”

Preliminary indications were viewers were intrigued. Based on a Nielsen Media Research measurement of 49 major markets, prime-time election coverage viewership for ABC, CBS and NBC was up 16 percent from 1996.

In Harrisonburg, Va., the Daily News-Record decided to go with the headline, “Bush elected 43rd president” based on wire and TV news reports, said editor and general manager Peter Yates. About an hour later, the paper changed the headline to “Presidential election too close to call.”

The Reuters news agency filed a story at 2:31 a.m. EST saying that Bush had narrowly beaten Gore.

Don Kirkland, editor of the Baptist Courier, the state Baptist newspaper in South Carolina, said the networks normally provide accurate election results. “I don’t know what went wrong in Florida,” Kirkland said, “Most years they are right about these predictions. I suppose my problem is with the predictions themselves.

“I’m concerned that any time you are putting a state in anybody’s column before the polls close, it can be discouraging and I think it lends to the feeling that my vote doesn’t count,” Kirkland added.

Newspapers across the country didn’t have it any easier. They pushed back deadlines, slowed press runs and planned extra editions. But with the presidential race coming down to the wire and deadlines looming, many papers went to bed — prematurely declaring Bush the winner, even as Florida’s crucial votes were still being counted.

“BUSH WINS!” the bold red headline screamed from the New York Post.

“BUSH TRIUMPHS,” proclaimed The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia.

After holding out most of the night, The New York Times’ website around 3 a.m. finally declared: “Bush Captures the White House.” About an hour later, The Times’ site pronounced the race “tight.”

The Times said it released about 100,000 newspapers with headlines saying Bush “appears” to have won. The first paragraph said Bush “was elected the 43rd president of the United States by one of the tightest margins in history.”

The Associated Press did not declare a winner early Wednesday, despite TV network projections.

Baylor University’s student newspaper, The Baylor Lariat, criticized the national media in a Nov. 9 staff editorial. “The irony about this speculative coverage is that the media has been all abuzz for weeks about this being the closest race in decades. But Tuesday night, the race had suddenly become a runaway, first for Bush, then for Gore, then back to Bush. That we cannot seem to trust the media to give us accurate and timely information is truly sad and a bit scary,” the editorial stated.

Owens suggested that regulation of the national media is not a solution to the problem. Rather, he proposed that consumers write letters. “Religious and social activists have long supported the art of letter writing,” Owens said. “My experience is that people really pay attention to letters to the editor. They really work.”

Downs said its time for journalists to take a hard look at their work. “It was an important lesson to learn,” he said. “Don’t be quite so quick to make decisions. If there is a more valid way to determine the sureness of information, then I would go for it.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at www.bpnews.net. Photo title: NETWORK COVERAGE OF THE ELECTION.

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  • Todd Starnes