Election-night news coverage, particularly by television journalists, was irresponsibly hasty in drawing conclusions for the presidential race. Anchors, reporters, analysts and pundits made a mockery of the most important political event in recent American history. As the polls closed and the suspense over the presidential election stretched out to the early morning, the national news media destroyed their own credibility.
Gore wins Florida. Florida is too close to call. Bush takes Florida and the election. Florida is too close to call . again. This was the seesaw viewers experienced watching major networks as election-night coverage continued amid inane, unscripted banter. The percentage of precincts reporting was still in the single digits. Major news outlets showed a disturbing penchant for speed over accuracy as they erroneously declared a winner in a key state so soon after polls closed.
Presidential coverage Tuesday night took on the tenor of a sporting contest rather than a presidential election. With sets reminiscent of NFL pre-game shows, countdowns to poll closings, strategic maps and graphics, one could easily have mistaken the election for a sporting event. Ousted politicians even took on a sports-related role as they filled announcing booths like washed-up athletes critiquing the players on the field.
TV, with its instant transmission of information, has the greatest potential to significantly miss the mark in election coverage, forcing broadcast journalists to harbor a greater responsibility for accuracy than their print-based peers. The news transmitted by television has the potential to immediately affect events as they happen. Newspapers can only report events after the fact and have far less effect.
But print journalists made mistakes, too. Many newspapers published multiple editions with revised articles and widely disparate headlines declaring victory first for one candidate, then the other, then neither. The New York Post published four separate editions. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution put out three.
What the entire fiasco comes down to is a fundamental decision for the future of journalism. Reporters, anchors, editors and producers must decide if they prefer being first or being accurate. Sometimes, like Tuesday night, those choices are mutually exclusive. To maintain the public trust, journalists must choose ethics and accuracy over profits and speed.