Observers have been warning that given the unprecedented nature of this year’s election with the large numbers of people voting using mail-in ballots instead of in person on election day, previous methods of projecting results are no longer valid and should not be used even if that means the results will not be known until days later instead of on election night.
The media are on course aware of this problem but as this piece from The Onion suggests, they may not be able to withstand the pressure to call the result if they think that another network might be on the verge of doing so. In the media business where ratings is everything, the desire to be first can, sadly, overpower the desire to be right.
NEW YORK—In an effort to safeguard the democratic process during a year in which a record number of ballots will be counted after election day, top TV news outlets including CNN, MSNBC, and Fox vowed Tuesday they would not prematurely declare a winner in the presidential contest unless their ratings began to drop. “With so much uncertainty surrounding the race this time around, we simply cannot risk announcing the outcome until a candidate has decisively won the Electoral College or our viewers are growing bored enough to change the channel,” said CNN anchor Jake Tapper, who added that the election was far too important for the media to sow confusion about who had been victorious, except in a circumstance in which a network was failing to deliver the kinds of numbers its advertisers expected. “It’s our duty as members of the free press to keep our reporting as accurate as possible, and up to the moment one of our competitors draws a better audience with a too-hasty verdict on the results, that’s exactly what we’ll do. You can trust that as long as you and millions of others stay tuned in, we won’t resort to calling Florida with only 30% of precincts reporting.” At press time, members of the media clarified that they still reserved the right to gin up ratings by declaring Trump the winner and then backtracking to call it for Biden, then Trump, and then Biden again.
Because of mail-in voting, the percentage of precincts reporting is no longer a good measure of how many ballots have been counted. A better one to keep an eye on is the number of votes counted as a percentage of the total number of votes cast, including the mail-ins.