I hope Tuesday will be a great night for the values of good journalism. With the U.S. election too close to call and with very difficult time pressures on journalists in all media, it is important to remember one of the basic tenets of good journalism: You must be accurate, you don’t need to be first.
It is tough enough to tell readers something definitive for a handful of newsprint editions at night as the votes are still being counted. There are times when stories and headlines must be written with incomplete information. That happens pretty much every day for some stories, but remember there are follow-up stories that will complete the picture.
The U.S. presidential races of 2000 and 2004 both fell into that category of cliff hangers. The 2000 results were finally determined by the Supreme Court after the hanging-chad issue in Florida. The potential for a contentious result hangs over this election, too.
The 2004 race was another squeaker for George W. Bush after the tightest possible race in Ohio. That night Democratic candidate John Kerry would not concede defeat and many votes had not been tallied by well after midnight. That lead to a very memorable headline on The Globe’s front page: It’s Bush (probably). The next day it said: It’s Bush (definitely). A sidebar article on the front page on five key other electoral wins referred to up-and-comer Barack Obama.
The It’s Bush (probably) headline was fun but it also didn’t stretch what was known at that hour of the night.
Globe and Mail News editor Greg Boyd, who will be in the hot seat Tuesday night, said journalists need to avoid the temptation to say more than they know. “Uncertainty is a worry. But we set a trap for ourselves when we compensate by adopting a degree of certainty which the reporting does not support. In these situations we best serve our readers by being transparent and honest about what our conclusions are and the basis for those conclusions.”
Still, the temptation to be first can be overwhelming. Television and radio jockey to be first in calling an election, often on slim and at times unreliable information. Public opinion polling and exit polling are not always accurate predictors of how a vote will turn out.
The New York Times on Monday had a story on the year of the big media gaffe and how the U.S. media is gearing up for Tuesday’s vote. As the Times notes, they remember 2000 when networks called Florida for Democratic candidate Al Gore.
Pressure will be even greater this election night because people on Twitter and other social media sites will discuss wins and losses and perhaps other news, such as irregularities and voting problems. Remember, though, those people are not held to account, as journalists and media sites are, for getting the facts right.
Readers expect professional journalists to be sure of the facts.
Jim Sheppard, executive editor of globeandmail.com and another Globe editor in the hotseat, remembers the pressure in 2000 when he was at washingtonpost.com.
“We certainly felt the pressure to jump into that whirlpool. We debated constantly but resisted the pressure to do anything other than what in retrospect was the right thing – stick with the web headline ‘Too close to call’ well into the early morning hours.
“We were, of course, lucky to have expertise of The Post’s senior editors and political correspondents/columnists urging us to wait. That was a great journalistic call – especially given that the election wasn’t decided officially until mid-December when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected further recounts.”
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