Media Compete To Offer Post-Election Analysis

As the polls close across the country, Americans will turn to radio, satellite radio, broadcast TV and cable TV for the results. But they will have especially more to choose from on the Internet, where scores of Web sites are competing to spread the word about who is winning.


In this saturated media age, just about every national election night, news organizations have a similar debate. How early should they call the election? Should they project a winner before all of the polls have closed? Well, joining us to talk about the new landscape of election night reporting is NPR's David Folkenflik. And David, let's start with some history, going back to 1980 when the networks called the result early for Ronald Reagan. It was a landslide. Jimmy Carter conceded before polls closed in the West. And a lot of people got very angry about that. How did the networks respond?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Well, the networks, under a fair amount of public heat, said, gosh, they were awfully sorry, and they really would try to be more cautious about spoiling the suspense, and they basically were. And it was easier, particularly once you hit the Clinton years in the '90s and the Bush elections, in that the elections were pretty close.

BLOCK: And the trouble is now, or part of the trouble can be, that news organizations are relying on exit polls, and these exit polls have proved to be at times very unreliable.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, the exit polls yield a vast wealth of information, and they can be useful. You're going to see a ton of people on cable, doing it to talk about the mood of the electorate, the demographics of the electorate. But it doesn't necessarily reflect the exact electorate. If you think back to 2004, if you went off the exit polls - which a lot of Web sites try to get early returns on and quickly post them to kind of beat their elders in the mainstream media - the exit polls would have strongly indicated John Kerry would be the president of the United States. Didn't happen. And that's meant that people are somewhat wary or more suspicious about it this time around.

BLOCK: But David, if it becomes clear throughout the evening, before polls close in the West - I mean, anybody sitting at home with an interactive electoral map can be charting as we go - and if one of the candidates reaches 270 electoral votes based on returns in other states, is there any network that wouldn't go right out and say, we can project a winner in this race?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I mean, we don't know precisely what's going to happen tonight. I mean, there could be a number of states that are quite close. But if there are states that go toward - if there's a sweep toward a certain candidate, say. You're going to see networks start to give heavy body language, as it were, indicating it's going to be a long uphill climb for, say, for argument's sake, Senator McCain or Senator Obama. It looks like things are tough for Senator so and so. They're going to give you a lot of body movement, body English, to indicate which way it's going to go.

Once the states have started to close, you're going to see, kind of, a wave of announcements. And I think that a number of stations, you know, they each have indicated they're going to exercise an excess of caution. David Chalian, political director of ABC said, we'd much rather be right than be first. But they are competing with so many different new outlets in the media landscape, not just new Web publications, but just Web sites devoted issues like this, like ThePolitico or FiveThirtyEight, that it's going to be hard to avoid the tug.

BLOCK: And why don't you explain a bit for our listeners what NPR's policy is on calling elections tonight?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you know, you got to check with the bosses, right? And you say, what are we doing? So, here's what we've learned. Our commitment is that NPR is not going to call states for either of the two major candidates until the time has elapsed by law for the closing of the polls in that state. So if there's a clear trend at some point, an early hour like 9 p.m., based on the states that have actually finished voting and based on our sense of what's going to come, we'll probably indicate that.

But until, you know - for example, take California or Texas, states not on the eastern seaboard, one of them clear blue state for Democrats, if you believe past polls and past experience, one of them clear red state for Republicans, those will not be assigned to either party until the polls are actually closed in those states. NPR is showing a bit more caution than some of its peers.

BLOCK: OK, NPR's David Folkenflik. Thanks very much.


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