Election night is a big stage for journalists, whether they’re on the political beat or have been drafted into duty. The evening brews a potent mix of anticipation, prognostication, projections, rumor and results. One certainty: mistakes will be made.
Here are five of the most common election night errors, along with tips for how to avoid them.
1. Rush to be first. Oh the glory of beating your competitors by 15 seconds! It never seems more important than on Election Day, and it leads to mistakes. Think “Dewey Defeats Truman,” and those incorrect front pages in the aftermath of the 2000 U.S. presidential race.
Pro tip: Take a lesson from the Associated Press and set the “conditions for accuracy.” Create a process that sets out clearly the information you require to make a specific call or projection, and build in fail safes to ensure that one person’s mistake doesn’t cause a cascade of failure. Communicate your goals and process widely to ensure all team members know the plan. And keep the lines of communication open all day and night.
2. Exit poll addiction. This is seemingly the freshest data about voter behavior. But it is fraught with difficulties, as evidenced by major errors in the 2004 exit polls, and the flawed exit poll data that played a factor in ABC News calling Florida for Gore early in 2000. Use with extreme caution.
Pro tip: Decide ahead of time how you will (and won’t) use the data. Work with colleagues ahead of time to draft language that can be inserted as a caveat and includes context when sharing exit poll numbers in any way. Make the language clear and use it frequently. If it seems like you’re using it so often that it may be repetitive, chances are you’re giving way too much attention to exit polls.
3. Fog of victory and defeat. Reporters will push to get the behind-the-scenes scoop about when a concession call has been made, or when a candidate is going to speak. Remember that once the results start coming in, things get hectic for everyone. As people start winning and losing, confusion will reign. Don’t get caught claiming someone has done or is doing something they haven’t, or said something they didn’t.
Pro Tip: Work ahead of time to secure and confirm contacts at all relevant campaigns. Get them to agree to be in touch throughout the day and night. Also ask them for a colleague who can be a backup. Get email addresses, cell phone numbers, BlackBerry PINs. Every possible way to connect with them. And tell them: “Listen, if you don’t know something for sure, make that clear when speaking to me. Let’s not both look like idiots.” Also, remember that what may seem like an important piece of information in the moment may in the long run be trivial and not worth sharing before it’s confirmed.
4. Candidate confusion. One of the most common factual errors in political reporting in general is to identify a Republican as a Democrat, and vice-versa. Also common: mixing up candidate headshots.
Pro tip: Check all Chyrons, file photos, affiliations etc. before the results start rolling in. Check with the campaigns if there is any confusion.
5. Swallowing spin: All the leaking and jockeying for position doesn’t stop on Election Day. With everyone’s attention focused on the results, it’s easy to get fed a false line, or to fall for a piece of misinformation or spin that seems inconsequential in light of the big news about to come in.
Pro Tip: This comes down to the most basic question you must ask any source: How do you know this? And the one basic question you need to ask yourself: What motivation does this person have for giving me this information? This applies to any story, any tip, any piece of information. Don’t relax your standards on a day when everyone is watching.