Networks Pledge Caution for an Election Night Like No Other

click to enlarge Chris Wallace, the anchor of “Fox News Sunday,” moderates the first presidential debate at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. Complicated ballot counts and a president’s baseless claims of vote-rigging are two of the challenges facing TV anchors and executives. - RUTH FREMSON/THE NEW YORK TIMES
Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
Chris Wallace, the anchor of “Fox News Sunday,” moderates the first presidential debate at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. Complicated ballot counts and a president’s baseless claims of vote-rigging are two of the challenges facing TV anchors and executives.

By Michael M. Grynbaum
The New York Times

Batches of ballots that will be counted at different times, depending on the swing state. Twitter gadflies and foreign agents intent on sowing confusion. A president who has telegraphed for months that he may not accept results he deems unfavorable.

Television executives overseeing this year’s election night broadcasts are facing big challenges. And the world will be watching.


“Frankly, the well-being of the country depends on us being cautious, disciplined and unassailably correct,” said Noah Oppenheim, the NBC News president. “We are committed to getting this right.”

In interviews, the men and women in charge of network news coverage — the platform that tens of millions of Americans will turn to on Tuesday to make sense of a confusing vote count and learn the future of their country — made similar pledges.

Patience. Caution. And constant reassurance to viewers about the integrity of the results. “We have to be incredibly transparent all through the night with what we know and what we don’t know,” said George Stephanopoulos, who will anchor the proceedings for ABC News.

To accommodate the idiosyncrasies of this pandemic-era campaign, networks are planning tweaks to the way some election nights looked in the past.


Real-time results will be displayed in the context of the total expected vote, including the absentee and mail-in ballots that will account for a high proportion of it. The usual metric, “precincts reporting,” is tied to in-person votes on Election Day, which producers expect to be potentially misleading.

The “decision desks,” the teams of data experts at news organizations who project results, say they are not competing over who calls a race first. “We’re preparing the audience that this might not be over in one night,” said Susan Zirinsky, president of CBS News.

And combating misinformation — be it from online mischief-makers or falsehoods from the commander-in-chief — is a priority, particularly in educating Americans that any delays in declaring a victor stem from care, not chicanery.

“Just because a count may take longer does not mean that something is necessarily wrong,” said Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief. “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.”

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