November 7, 2020

I’ve gotten a lot of questions over the past week about what information to trust about calling the presidential race, what sources are reliable.

The most reliable information is the confirmed and official results from the government and election offices nationwide, which is a process guided by the Constitution. But that all takes about a month.

So, about a century ago, news outlets began gathering election results across the nation in an effort to get an answer for the impatient public who just didn’t want to wait that long, according to Sally Buzbee, executive editor of the Associated Press. The AP has been leading this charge and “counting the vote” since 1848 (more on that history from The New York Times here).

AP has been the gold standard for calling races for decades. Many (if not most) news organizations look to them on election night and share the AP’s reporting and election calls with their audiences. Here’s one explanation of how that works from NPR.

Buzbee said during Poynter’s “Weirdest Election Night Ever” virtual event in October (recap story here) that the AP uses math and analysis, and a stringent process and methodology for calling races (watch 28:30 in this video of the event). That includes its massive network of reporters and stringers nationwide who call thousands of state and county officials and check in on many official election websites across the nation.

Tonight, I had a friend ask me how The New York Times could call Alabama for President Donald Trump if fewer than 1% of the precincts had reported. The New York Times pulls its results from AP.

Buzbee explained in an interview with Poynter’s Rick Edmonds last week that “AP uses its gold standard vote count, AP VoteCast and other analytical tools to declare winners. In some cases, we are able to use results from AP VoteCast to declare a winner as soon as polls close. In those cases, the results from AP VoteCast — along with our analysis of early voting and other statistics – confirm our expectation that longstanding political trends in these states will hold.” Read higher up in the article to learn more about the new AP VoteCast data collection, which it launched this year as it phased out its reliance on exit polling.

The AP also has a sophisticated data set that streams real-time election results that you see powering many of the “magic walls” on TV cable news, news websites’ graphics, in news apps and on some social media platforms.

One important change since 2016 is that the traditional National Election Pool (AP, NBC, Fox, CNN, ABC and CBS) has split. Each organization independently calls its own races, but AP and Fox wanted out of the pool in favor of the new VoteCast system because they didn’t want to rely on exit polling after the last election, while the others have continued to rely, in part, on exit polls (with some adjustments) when calling races, as Edmonds reported for Poynter.

All of that said, Americans at home might want to still play it on the safe side and consult two to three additional news outlets to see what they are reporting about state races and the presidential winner before taking any final results as fact. The New York Times has a good tracker of how outlets are calling races here. Or you can also just pick two to three outlets you regularly follow and see what they are reporting.

The key is to make sure all the information matches. If there are any discrepancies between what the newsrooms of three to four outlets have concluded, that is a red flag.

And remember — it could be a long night, so try to be patient!

Follow @MediaWise across platforms for more media literacy tips.

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Katy Byron is the editor and program manager of Poynter’s MediaWise, a non-profit project teaching millions of Americans how to sort fact from fiction online.…
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