Tuesday is Election Day and news outlets are preparing as they prepare for any big story — by expecting the unexpected.
One problem: No one knows what the unexpected could be because we have no idea what is expected.
Will Joe Biden win in a landslide? Will Donald Trump pull off another Election Day upset? Will we know a winner Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning? Will there be lawsuits? Could this last a week or a month? Will voters decide the election or will the Supreme Court?
The polls say Biden will win easily, but polls have been wrong before — a lesson the networks learned in 2016 and will have in mind going into Tuesday’s coverage.
“We’re prepared for everything,” NBC News’ Lester Holt told me. “Everything and anything.”
The big question everyone seems to have is when will we know who won the election? When will a winner be declared? The answer, of course, is no one can know for sure until we see how the night plays out. But the networks are looking at later rather than sooner.
“Frankly, the well-being of the country depends on us being cautious, disciplined and unassailably correct,” Noah Oppenheim, the NBC News president, told The New York Times Michael M. Grynbaum. “We are committed to getting this right.”
Getting it right might take time. Why? Mail-in balloting, for one thing.
Some states — such as Florida and Arizona and, most likely, North Carolina — should have their mail-in ballots counted early enough that we could know which candidate won those states on Tuesday night, particularly if a candidate wins by a hefty margin. Wisconsin’s results could be known on election night, but perhaps not until Wednesday. Other states — Pennsylvania and Michigan — could take until the end of the week. Depending on how each of those states go, a call could be made Tuesday night or not until Wednesday, Thursday or even Friday.
As Holt told me, “I’m bringing a change of clothes and an extra suit.”
While Trump keeps harping that a winner should be declared on Tuesday night and threatening legal action should the results be delayed, a delay is very possible and does not mean there are problems.
“Just because a count may take longer does not mean that something is necessarily wrong,” Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief, told Grynbaum. “It may not even mean that it’s a close race. We have to constantly remind the viewer that patience will be needed and this may take some time in critical states, and that doesn’t mean anything is untoward.”
Here’s the issue that networks not only have to deal with, but also need to explain to their viewers: The mail-in ballots could really swing the pendulum from one candidate to the other. Arnon Mishkin, who runs Fox News’ decision desk, told The Washington Post’s Sarah Ellison and Jeremy Barr that there are two states most likely to push viewers to “draw inappropriate conclusions” because of how mail-in votes are counted. Those two states are Florida and Pennsylvania.
Florida will count its early votes first and that likely will make it look like Biden is in control there. Pennsylvania counts its Election Day votes first and that likely will make it seem as if Trump is on his way to victory there. But those states could ultimately flip — or at least get tighter — with each passing hour.
That’s why networks will be hesitant to make early calls — or even why they might call a state for one candidate even though the board shows something different. Transparency will be crucial.
Sally Buzbee, senior vice president and executive editor for The Associated Press, told AP’s David Bauder, “The general public has a more intense desire to understand it at a nitty-gritty level. We don’t want to be a dark, mysterious black box of ‘We’re going to declare a winner, and we’re not going to tell you how we do it.’ I don’t think that benefits us, and I don’t think it benefits democracy.”
Bauder writes that AP’s decision desk will call some 7,000 races, from the local races all the way to the presidency.
“A lot of people do know that the AP is a straight shooter, but I don’t feel that we can let people take our word for it anymore,” Buzbee told Bauder. “It makes sense to show people our methodology and to be transparent about how we call races because that then gives people a greater ability to assess what we do.”
Of course, AP isn’t the only organization that will call the races. When it comes to the big races, especially for president, all the networks can call any race. Axios’ Sara Fischer reports that Twitter has named seven outlets to call election results: ABC News, AP, CNN, CBS News, Decision Desk HQ, Fox News and NBC News.
But if you’re going to make a call, you better be right. Nothing is worse than making a call that you have to walk back. That’s why it’s critical for these organizations to simply report what they know when they know it, while not being afraid to admit what they don’t know.
“Explaining to the viewers what we know and don’t know will be a very important part of election night and perhaps the days after,” Feist told Bauder.
CBS News President Susan Zirinsky said, “We’re committed to being transparent — telling viewers in real time what we know, when we know it and how we know it.”
The how is as important as the what and when.
As much as the entire country wants to know who won as soon as possible, the best thing that news outlets can do is report what they know and proceed with caution.
“When the hour comes, and the polls close, we are going to characterize every state that has closed: likely, leaning toss-up, late-in-the night call,” Zirinsky told the Post. “But what we have to maintain very clearly to the audience is what we know, how we know it. We’re educating the public on how we are making this assessment. We have to prepare the audience: it may not be over that night, it may take days.”
Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer. For the latest media news and analysis, delivered free to your inbox each and every weekday morning, sign up for his Poynter Report newsletter.