In an election season that feels like no other, Harvard Kennedy School’s John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at the Institute of Politics and the Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy took an inside look at what newsrooms are facing. Director of the Shorenstein Center Nancy Gibbs welcomed to the conversation Brian Carovillano, vice president and managing editor of the Associated Press; David Chalian, vice president and political director of CNN; and Chuck Todd, NBC News political director and moderator of "Meet the Press."

These media pros say election night reporting comes down to managing expectations. With so many votes cast outside of traditional polling places, such as remote ballot boxes, sports arenas and even hospital waiting rooms, exit polls, which give viewers their first look at results, won’t tell the whole story. “It’s just going to take a really long time for the numbers to be counted,” Chalian says. “And, so, our audiences need a little bit of patience here, just because of what we're dealing with in the process of casting and counting ballots in a pandemic.”  Todd said the networks also have to re-evaluate their model: “We don’t care if we don’t call a single race first, we're not doing that. I think we in the networks have a lot more to lose by trying to make early calls.”

Nancy Gibbs, David Chalian/CNN, Brian Carovillano/Associated Press, Chuck Todd/NBC News.

“Our job is not to get ahead of the outcome. Our job is to actually cover what is before us, as it's unfolding before us. And we have to not be afraid to do that.”

David Chalian

And for the first time, there are two different exit polls, with the AP stepping outside the traditional consortium they belonged to with ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, and NBC, to create VoteCast. “This year absentee and early voters will be probably somewhere between 50 percent and 60 percent,” said Carovillano of the AP. “There is a significant shift away from capturing election night data, so VoteCast uses a variety of ways to reach these voters, including online and mail surveys, and is able to deliver the results in real time.” Both Todd and Chalian agree that the AP exit poll is valuable in that it provides a second set of eyes on polling results and allows the election night news desk to focus on the job at hand.

“Our job is not to get ahead of the outcome,” cautions Chalian. “Our job is to actually cover what is before us, as it's unfolding before us. And we have to not be afraid to do that.”

Watch the full conversation here.

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