Kennedy School Report Contrasts Election Night Television Coverage

Contact: Doug Gavel
Phone: 617-495-1115
Date: December 19, 2003

Cambridge, MA – Election night is one of the increasingly few occasions when a large number of Americans watch television to hear about politics. What do election night broadcasts provide to the public? What do they emphasize and what interpretations of the election do they offer?

These questions are addressed in the report “Diminishing Returns” released this month by Prof. Thomas E. Patterson and the Kennedy School of Government’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. Patterson is Bradlee professor of government and the press at the Kennedy School.

By comparing the 1968 and 2000 election night broadcasts, the research explores how coverage has changed and whether the public is well served by these broadcasts.

“Diminishing Returns” describes how personality and pacing have increasingly driven election night coverage. Use of anchors rather than correspondents has increased while the average “sound bite” has shrunk dramatically. Patterson found that the breaking up of reports into smaller pieces has weakened the content of this coverage.

“You’d think that a conversational style could be used in probing ways, but the dialogue rarely goes beyond superficial observations,” Patterson says. “The in-depth reporting that came out in the 1968 election night coverage was rare in 2000. The current format concentrates too heavily on the anchors. The correspondents who have been covering the campaign no longer get the airtime necessary to offer detailed observations or insights.”

The study also documents how thoroughly exit polls have come to dominate election night broadcasts. “An irony of the exit polls,” Patterson says, “is that, though intended to deepen the analysis of voters’ decisions, they are typically used in superficial ways.”

Other changes documented in the research were increased attention to election strategy and to the presidential race at the expense of congressional and other races. “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.”

Funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the research findings will be the basis for upcoming meetings about election night 2004 between broadcast journalists and Shorenstein Center scholars. These sessions will lead to a set of recommendations for strengthening election night broadcasting in 2004 at the national and local levels. These recommendations will be published in booklet form next spring.

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. An earlier book, “The Unseeing Eye,” was named one of the 50 most influential books on public opinion in the past half-century by the American Association for Public Opinion Research.

The report, “Diminishing Returns,” is available online: http://www.ksg.harvard.edu/presspol/Research_Publications/Reports/Election_Night_Report.pdf

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