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CAMBRIDGE, MA – Election Night is one of the rare occasions during which a large number of Americans turn on their televisions to learn about politics. But on Election Night 2000, news broadcasts only added to voter confusion.
In response to that experience, Prof. Thomas E. Patterson and the Kennedy School of Government’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy has released a set of recommendations for strengthening election night telecasts.
“Eleven Recommendations for Improving Election Night Television” was developed in consultation with television executives and journalists by examining the internal reviews that the networks conducted after their star-crossed Election Night broadcasts of 2000, and through a systematic comparison of Election Night coverage of the 1968 and 2000 presidential elections—both elections were cliffhangers but occurred at very different stages in the evolution of television news coverage.
The recommendations include:
• Explain exit polling to the audience so that viewers understand the basis for vote projections;
• Enlarge the explanations: sound bites on Election Night telecasts have shrunk to an average of 15 seconds;
• If polls in a state are still open, regularly remind viewers of that fact;
• Give adequate coverage to the Congressional races, even though the Presidential election is “the big story;”
• Look forward as well as back: aside from winning and losing, journalists must ask what the outcome portends for the nation. “The one subject that broadcasters rarely talked about in 1968 or in 2000,” Patterson says, “is the effect of the outcome on the direction of national policy and leadership.”
Patterson has written widely on the media and elections. His most recent book, “The Vanishing Voter,” examines the causes and consequences of declining electoral participation, while his book “Out of Order” looks at the media's political role.
The report “Eleven Recommendations for Improving Election Night Television” can be found in pdf format online:
The research report, “Diminishing Returns,” which compared the 1968 and 2000 election night broadcasts, is also available online:
The Shorenstein Center’s study of election night broadcasting was funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.