Media Briefings

Covering election night: uncertainty, early results, and lessons from the past

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On November 3rd, journalists covering national and local elections will be in uncharted terrain as they strive to interpret and accurately report early results in a landscape of unprecedented uncertainty. Anticipated ballot counting challenges and the infiltration of misinformation will make election-night reporting even more difficult than usual. Our instructive briefing covered best practices—and pitfalls to avoid—for reporters covering the 2020 elections.

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Introduction

[0:00:00]

RICK WEISS: And welcome, everyone, to this SciLine media briefing. For those of you who are not familiar with SciLine, I will say quickly that we are a nonprofit, nonpartisan, philanthropically supported, editorially independent, free service for reporters – doesn’t any better than that – based at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington. Our mission is to help get more scientific evidence and research-backed evidence into news stories. We do that through a variety of services that I encourage you to check out on our website sciline.org, including helping you get connected to scientists – including social and political scientists – as needed in your coverage.

Now, usually, these media briefings are designed to get reporters up to speed on some area of science in the news. But occasionally, we aim to do something a little more along the lines of practical professional development for journalists using our experience connecting experts to journalists to help you do your jobs more skillfully in challenging circumstances. Well, it’s hard to imagine circumstances more challenging than those you’re all facing in the weeks ahead, especially on November 3 but also in the days leading up to and probably the days after November 3 as well. I don’t need to tell you the burden of responsibility that the institution of journalism will bear in these coming days and weeks. The pandemic, the Postal Service, voting technology – all are injecting doses of uncertainty into this election, and we do not want history to report that journalism made things worse.

So to help you to get as right as possible, we’re – we’ve invited three extremely talented people with decades of professional perspective to make short presentations and then take your questions. I’m not going to take time to introduce them all in depth right now. Their bios are on the SciLine website. But I will just say that you will hear first from Julie Pace, who is Washington bureau chief for the Associated Press and will be directing AP’s coverage of the election – no pressure there – and who will offer some practical advice on handling the coming storm from a reporter’s perspective. Next, we’re going to hear from Lee Miringoff, who is the director of Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, who can help us make best use of the flow of polling and survey data that is already coming our way and learn mistakes that you don’t want to make.

And finally, we’ll hear from Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert in political journalism who is professor of communication at University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication and director of the university’s Annenberg Policy Center and – Public Policy Center and a co-founder of factcheck.org. Just a quick note before we start – SciLine and the American Statistical Association recently put together a fact sheet with some practical advice for helping reporters work with polls and surveys. We’re going to post a link for that fact sheet in the chat area of this briefing. And if you folks want to check that out later, we encourage you to do so. It’s quite a lot of practical use. And with that, I’d like to turn it over to you, Julie. Thanks.

Presentations

Best Practices for Reporters Covering Election Night

[0:03:07]

JULIE PACE: Thank you, Rick, and thank you all for being here. This is certainly a busy time but also, I think, a really exciting time for those of us who cover politics. This is my fourth presidential campaign that I’ve covered. I’ve also covered other midterm elections and other races in between. But I think I can say that this is the most challenging election that I’ve covered and potentially one of the most complex situations that we’ll have dealt with on election night, and there are really two big reasons for that. One is the pandemic and its impact on voting in America, and the second is the prospect of misinformation or disinformation around this election. Both of those create some real challenges for journalists as we cover results but, I also think, some really important opportunities where media organizations can step in to provide people with some context and factual information.

So let’s start with the pandemic’s impact on voting, which, again, has been quite profound. You know, we were already expecting to see a significant increase in mail-in voting and early voting this year, but that has just skyrocketed as many people make the decision to vote by mail as opposed to going to the polls in person on Election Day. Again, this was a trend line that we had been seeing, but it has just been expanded so significantly. And the result of that is that states are having to make changes that they would normally carry out to adjust for that increase over a number of years. They’re having to make it over the course of months. And what that means is that we have rules in some key states that are changing even at this late date. So in Pennsylvania, for example, we just had a Supreme Court ruling on Monday night allowing mail-in vote to be counted up to three days after the election as long as there’s no indication that it was actually mailed after Election Day.

There’s actually a similar case that’s pending in the high court regarding Wisconsin. There are also negotiations that are underway in Pennsylvania about when they can start counting that mail-in vote. At the moment, they can’t start counting it until Election Day, which means we could have a real delay getting results from the state. There are politicians, though, who are trying to do some negotiations to allow that county to start earlier, which is certainly something that we at the AP, as we get ready to start tabulating the vote, would appreciate. Now, this makes it, I think, really incumbent on us as journalists covering this election to do our homework and then to help inform our audiences about what the rules are. This is particularly important if you are a local journalist covering a local – particular state or a local community. It will really help. You set your own expectations, but also set the expectations for your readers and your viewers.

Obviously, we can’t fully predict when a race is going to be called, but I think you can start to think through some scenarios and, again, explain those to your audience to help them understand what election night might be. So here’s one that we’ve been talking about a lot at the AP. Let’s say you cover a competitive state, and that state has a large amount of mail-in voting this year, but they can’t start counting it until Election Day – again, like Pennsylvania. They also accept mail-in ballots after Election Day. You should absolutely be preparing your audience right now for the prospect that we won’t know the winner on November 3 if it’s a close race. You should also tell them that the wider the margin is, the bigger that gap between the candidates is, the more likely that we might be able to. But again, in a close race, all of those other factors that I outlined will really complicate the efforts by the AP and other outlets that count votes to declare a winner.

The other thing I really want to emphasize here is that as you walk your audience through those kind of scenarios, probably the most important thing that you can tell them is that delays under those kind of circumstances almost certainly will not mean voter fraud. It’s simply how the rules are constructed this year. Yes, those rules might be convoluted. They might be a little confusing to people, but they are the rules. And following those rules may mean a slower count in some places. I truly do think that one of the most important things we can be telling Americans right now is about that reality. We do not live in a country that has experienced widespread voter fraud, and there is no indication that we are in the midst of an election with voter fraud right now. I am also, though, very realistic that the gap between when polls close and when we are able to declare a winner is a really big opportunity for misinformation and disinformation to circulate.

And, of course, that is possibly from the candidates themselves. I think the thing that you want to do in that space is be armed with a lot of real information and facts and to already be thinking through some of the scenarios that could arise and could prompt misinformation and how you would handle them. One of the resources that you have is information that the AP is going to be putting out around its race-calling process. So there was once a time when I think we at the AP felt like we could just say we’ve called the race for this candidate and just accept that that was going to be agreed upon by all Americans. You know, I don’t think that’s the case anymore. I think our standards remain high. I think we remain the gold standard. I think we have a really great brand on elections. But I think that in this environment, we have to go above and beyond in being transparent about why we’re making a decision around a race call.

And so we’re set up to do exactly that this year. We will be distributing quickly. As we are calling races, as we are making decisions to not call races, we will be distributing information widely to our members, which I assume will include a lot of your outlets also, on our consumer-facing website and app, AP News – really detailed information that tells you why a certain area of the state has votes that allow us to call a race, why we maybe are holding off on a race call awaiting information from another area of the state. Again, we will do it quickly. We do not want to have a vacuum out there where there’s a lack of understanding about a decision that we are making. We also know, though, that there could still be misinformation flying and could still be moments where we’re caught between – in a scenario where a candidate is saying something and there’s a difference between what they’re saying and what we know the reality to be.

One scenario I get asked about a lot – I’m sure this is not a surprise to you – is what if a candidate declares victory before the AP has called the race? So I think it’s important as we talk about this scenario to know that there are actually two different circumstances in which that could happen. One isn’t actually completely unheard of and has happened in previous elections. This is where a candidate just can very clearly see where the race is going, and we actually can, too. We’re just dotting the I’s, crossing some Ts, maybe being a little cautious about our race call, but we’re moving in that same direction. We still, in those moments, want to be very transparent and would say something like, the AP believes it is too early to call the race but is continuing to tabulate votes, and we will keep you apprised. And usually there’s a pretty quick window where we’re able to make that call. But I do think that the scenario that people are particularly worried about is when we’re in a truly unknown situation around the status of the race, where there are either multiple states or one important state that has not yet been called and a candidate comes out and declares himself the winner.

We at the AP don’t think that that is something we can ignore, but we also think that we have a responsibility quickly, in real time, to add accurate information about the state of the race. And again, that is more than just saying the AP has not called the race. That is saying why. And we also feel strongly that we have to do that every single time that that candidate makes that statement and in every single place where we might be reflecting it. The worst thing we could do is let any headline, news alert, tweet, photo caption, video caption, any place where our journalism goes, move out with a candidate simply declaring victory without putting that contextual information. And I think that the thing that ties all of this together, you know, whether you’re covering the presidential race, a specific state or local race, is making sure that you’re drawing on trusted sources of information on election night and spending time now doing your homework about these different kinds of scenarios, starting to prepare your audience for what those scenarios could look like.

The AP, again, around elections is going to be a great resource for that. I would urge you to go to AP News on election night to be able to get these details on a lot of these race calls that we’ll be making. Do your homework right now around fact-checking operations. AP has a great fact-checking operation. You can find it – our fact-checks on our archives on AP News. PolitiFact is another great archive that you can go to. And I think both of those fact-checking operations are really good at pointing you toward other sources of information so that you can show your work as you’re communicating to your audiences. I think that, above all, the message I would leave you with is that transparency for those of us in journalism is going to be so crucial as we try to gain trust from our audiences and really leave them with confidence about the status of this election.

RICK WEISS: Julie, that’s wonderful to hear. And I really – bravo for the new levels of transparency that you’re talking about here. It’s obviously needed more than ever if we’re going to have public trust in this process, so I really appreciate that. OK, over to you, Lee.

Types of Polls and How to Cover Them

[0:12:04]

LEE MIRINGOFF: OK. Thank you, Rick. My pleasure to join you guys all remotely. The disadvantage of doing a remote briefing of this sort is because we can’t see all of you, if I say a joke, I hear no laughter. If you don’t like what I’m talking about, you can just all get up and quietly exit for a while, and I’ll have no idea. So, you know, just, you know, periodically remember that I’m still talking, and you can come back and hear me and Dr. Jamieson in a few moments. But anyway, thank you – a pleasure to join with you folks today. Just wanted to mention that just by way of introduction, the Marist poll is an independent polling group. We don’t do any polling for candidates or political parties.

We’ve been doing this since 1978, which means I started, I guess, when I was very, very young. We have two media partners right now. We do our national polls with NPR, PBS NewsHour with Judy Woodruff, and we do our battleground state polls with NBC News. We do not do The Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. That is done by a different group who have been doing it very well for a long time. They do national polls with the network and The Wall Street Journal, and we’re doing only the state battleground polls for that outlet. Our polls are all done – live interviews, calling people on cells and landline. I’m going to talk about some different things, some that I’ll be doing kind of like jumping and hitting and missing and – because I want to sort of be responsive if you have any particular questions.

So I want to cover a lot of things but not go into too much depth in any particular one. I first wanted to start out by talking about the differentiation between public polls, campaign polls, exit polls and push polls. So the public polls, like what we do and what you’re all reading about in different media outlets, those are really – the goal is to inform, to be accurate and to provide a snapshot of where things are at a given point in time. So it’s very important to see when the field dates were, particularly if the polls are around an event. And four years ago, which I’m going to talk about briefly, some of the polls that were out before the Comey letter were going to miss any late developments because we do know that people who disliked both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump voted for Trump in the end. But that didn’t occur until many of the polls have already been put to bed.

The campaign polls are obviously those that are done by the campaigns to target and influence. If you’re the recipient of some internal polls, I think you have to consider the source on those in terms of who – you know, who may have a vested interest in the outcome and communicating a certain spin on that to you. The exit polls are the ones that are conducted on Election Day itself. There’s two major organizations who will be doing that. And basically they’re very cognizant of the early vote and include that into all the calculations because the early vote, obviously, is a huge group of people and is more likely to – and is going more Democratic, whereas the day-of vote on the 3rd is likely to be much more Republican and for Donald Trump.

And then the push polls, which are probably the worst-named thing in this – because push polls aren’t really polls. People think the push polls are when you get a call and it has a message and it’s trying to influence you in a certain way, but it’s in the guise of a poll. It’s really not a poll where you’re taking a small group and generalizing to the larger population. Those are really done by campaigns to reach out to a wholesale audience and not even pretend that they’re doing anything that is a representative sample in the least. So that was one thing. Second group I want to talk about are the aggregators who have become a very big part of the poll coverage. These are the groups like RealClearPolitics, FiveThirtyEight, 270ToWin, a bunch of organizations that a lot of us go to periodically or daily, I should say – maybe by the hour – to see what the different states and national numbers are showing. They’re different. RealClearPolitics tends to include a lot of different polls of varying quality.

Some are polls that sort of show up around this time, and then they vanish afterwards. Some of them are Democrat. Some are Republican. It’s good to have an average of the polls, and it’s bad to take one poll – like there’s one right now in Minnesota for the Senate race showing a one-point difference. It’s the only poll that we’ve seen that – doing that. So before you kind of jump on Minnesota as being hotly contested for the Senate, let’s wait to see if there’s a confirming poll that does that or whether that poll’s an outlier. Of course, today’s outlier can be tomorrow’s conventional wisdom. And so, you know, we note those, but we don’t necessarily salute those results. FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver’s website, does adjust for the track record of the organization. But the group I wanted to also talk about are the forecasters because they’ve really taken a big place in defining the narrative of what we perceive to be what’s happening with the electorate. And they played a huge role in 2016. And the forecasters are the groups – they’re not doing it this time, but they’re – like, Huffington Post, YouGo, I believe, does it. There’s a group at The Economist does it. FiveThirtyEight – another place.

And these are the things where you’re hearing that Joe Biden has an 88% chance of winning. Or last time, Hillary Clinton had all the way up to a 98% chance of winning. And recognized in an era of uncertainty, these polls – I should say, these forecasts, and they’re trying to be predictive of the final result – are not really able to communicate well the uncertainty with which those calculations are made. First of all, they use polls, but they really put it through their own models. So when they had Hillary Clinton overwhelmingly winning last time, well, they’re always going to be right because if there’s a 98% chance of her winning and she doesn’t, there was a 2% chance that she wasn’t going to win. So it may not be comforting if you hear there’s going to rain out, and there’s 80% chance. And, you know, you get an umbrella and a raincoat, and it doesn’t rain, you don’t really care that much.

But in politics, if you hear that there’s an 80% chance that Joe Biden’s going to beat Donald Trump and it doesn’t happen, then that’s creating a lot of misinformation, even though it may have been accurate as a forecast. The ability to communicate that uncertainty is very good and very important. In fact, in 2016, the national polls were very good. And the state polls that were done after the Comey letter were good. The ones that were problematic were the ones that were before the Comey letter. So although the polls took the rap for 2016 because that perception was that she was going to win, it wasn’t the polls that were largely creating that perception. So I was going to talk – I don’t want to use up too much time at this point, but I was going to talk a little bit about shy Trump voters. If you want to know about them or what they aren’t, I’d be happy to talk about that in the Q and A.

I just wanted to talk about a lot of comparisons right now in the polls between 2016 and 2020 in terms of what those races have been like as we have been able to measure them in the polls. And they’re really very different. We tend to look at 2020 as a deviation or a change incrementally one way or the other from 2016. But the coalitions that the candidates are getting, particularly Joe Biden, is really very different, and the campaigns have been very different. Few factors – Donald Trump’s numbers have been steady as you can imagine, both in terms of his approval rating – he’s the only president never to break 50 in a recognized poll during the course of his administration. He stays, you know, between the low and mid-40s and has been all along. In 2016, there was a lot of movement. And whoever was in the media attention during the course of the campaign, they tended to go down because they both had extremely high negatives, Clinton and Trump. Right now, Trump’s negatives are very high. Clinton’s are actually more positive than negative. It’s a different situation.

Last time, we had a lot of late deciders – this time, very few persuadable voters. The undecided is exceptionally low. We measure persuadable voters as people who are undecided or tell us they like a candidate but might still vote differently. And in the presidential race, that’s at tops 5% in these states, and nationally, it’s even a little bit less. A third or fourth factor is the minor party candidates are not going to clock the kind of 6% they had last time. I mentioned about the Clinton numbers. She was always under 50 in the key states throughout. Joe Biden was around 50 and over. That’s a big deal. And I think also the way the campaign has gone – in 2016, Donald Trump was not an incumbent. He was sort of the outsider. And he kind of made it successfully a choice between the two of them. Now he’s the incumbent. And because of his personality, he has kept it a referendum on himself, which is not what the doctor would order in this case, given the – given what his ratings are, especially with the coronavirus and how he’s least likely – or less likely to be seen as someone who can handle that. So when you need to make it a choice, he’s kept it a referendum. We’ll see if tonight it’s – the case continues. And if you think back at the first debate, you think about Donald Trump. To be successful, you have to be thinking about him and Joe Biden.

And that hasn’t happened yet. I would mention that the coalitions, as I said before, their support is a little bit different. Biden, we’re seeing, is doing better among suburban women. He’s doing better with white voters without a college education. He’s not carrying them, but he’s certainly doing better than it was four years ago. That’s why in the industrial states – Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin – we’re seeing in the Rust Belt a different picture right now from four years ago. People of color are probably a little weaker for Biden, at least at the moment. But he’s doing much better among voters who are 65 or older. So I would underscore and agree with what Julie just said. I would add that the turnout is going to be through the roof. We could get as high as 150 million voters. I think that it’s important to understand these calculations and projections on election night include that early vote. It’s not just the day-of vote. The count will be coming in at different times, as she alluded to. Florida and North Carolina, we’re probably going to have a final count on Tuesday the 3.

Unfortunately, in the Rust Belt states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, they’re going to be slow. And it just has to do with the rules they’re following and when mail can be – come in and when it can be counted, when they can start counting. I would end with a concern that I think a lot of people have shared not only about disinformation, but also about what Nate Silver has referred to kindly as the shenanigans factor. And I think that what we’ve seen is in terms of the Postal Service, in terms of some court decisions, in terms of things that may still occur between now and November 3 and November 3 itself and maybe in the days after, and I don’t know what the new Supreme Court – how that will play into this, but clearly, there is issues that we have to be concerned about involving not necessarily the fraud, as was pointed out, but the suppression of the vote. To the degree that the polls are measuring voters’ intention, people are telling us as a likely voter that they, in essence, think they voted, OK? But what happens at the end of the line if those votes are discounted or not counted? In such a scenario – and I’ll end with just this – the polls can be both right and wrong. The polls can be right in that they accurately captured what the sentiment was, which is all we can really do, wrong if not all the votes that people think that cast were, in fact, cast. So that’s sort of everything I know in 7 1/2 minutes or less.

RICK WEISS: Great. Thank you very much, Lee. We appreciate that. And we’ll go on to Kathleen.

Applying Lessons from the Past

[0:25:23]

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Let me begin by plugging factcheck.org, which gained its national prominence when Dick Cheney cited it in 2004 inaccurately and as a result crashed our servers – we were designed for journalists, not for the public – and gave us the headline, which is still my favorite for factcheck.org, which is, Dick Cheney cited us and got our name wrong because he called us factcheck.com. I’d like to praise the two bodies of research that we’ve worked on in order to share some insights with you. I was the academic on the CBS review panel in 2000, and as a result – the election review panel that looked at election night and what went wrong – and as a result, we content-analyzed what the network said across the entire coverage period and then looked at what all the print and radio journalists did as well. And we tracked that through, then, in broadcast and print until the election outcome was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court ruling.

I’m going to draw on that first, and if Gary will put up the slides. And then, second, I’m going to draw on a book called “Cyberwar: How Russian Trolls And Hackers Helped Elect A President” – it’s now in second edition – which has a chapter on the #DemocracyRIP campaign of the Russians, which they never actually fully activated because it was predicated on delegitimizing Hillary Clinton as president. But I think it gives us some useful insight into what we should be watching for in the days ahead. So first slide, please. Lessons from election night 2000. First, independent journalism has a lot of value. And a shoutout to the AP, which is our oldest reputable journalistic outlet in the United States, because it held off and dispatched an advisory at 3:11 after the networks had made their mistaken call, saying the outcome was still in doubt. AP got it right. Independent journalism has value, and journalism that exercises caution in the face of uncertainty has even more. Then, second, beware the presumption created by pre-election surveys. So if you assume Bush is going to win, you can – that can lead to the assumption that the presidency is his to lose. And when the election was then called for him by the networks, that created a second presumption.

And we saw that presumption play itself through in the language that is adopted by reporters across the coming days as the nation tried to make sense of the fraught process in Florida. And so we saw language such as, this is a recount, not a count when the Gore campaign was arguing that there were ballots that hadn’t been counted at all, for example. We also saw some very effective framing by the Bush campaign. And in the process, my caution to journalists is watch your language. The language can carry a frame that creates a presumption. When journalists talked about the military ballots as opposed to the overseas ballots, they created a presumption in favor of counting them as opposed to a neutral presumption that there just simply were ballots there, and they should be adjudicated based on whatever the rules were in place in Florida. Next Slide.

Lesson three – projections were treated as if they were results. And the networks were overconfident in their projections. And that overconfidence was unjustified by the science on which they were based. Dan Rather said it best. He said, we’d lived by the crystal ball and learned to eat so much broken glass tonight that we’re in critical condition. Projections are not results. And even as the analysts were talking and knowing that there are margins and there are uncertainties, they were suggesting that when they had called it, there was a level of certainty attached to the call there could not be. Essentially, the 2000 election in Florida was tied.

You couldn’t get out of any survey what that outcome was actually going to be. And then, four, beware of the illusion of convergent data. The networks created the illusion in 2000 that they each had their own polling operations. They didn’t. They were relying on the Voter News Service, and they’d added a few questions of their own. But as a result, they gave you the sense that there’d been independent calls by them from separate sources of data when, in fact, that simply wasn’t the case. So those are the four lessons I would draw from election night 2000. Then, if you’ll turn to, what can we learn from the Russians, and what they were doing in the run up to 2016. We know from looking at their plans and what’s been released since, and we also know from last night’s news conference, that we should be watching for breaches in the electoral infrastructure. What does that mean? It’s important right now that those on news beats be asking, what are the protections in place in your states, to what extent is your registration data protected, et cetera. And so when we get information about breaches, the public needs to know, what’s the likelihood that that needs to be taken seriously? The secretaries of state have done a lot of work preemptively to minimize the vulnerabilities we had in 2016. Let’s do good reporting to hold them accountable and ensure that we can give accurate assurances that they’re as safe as they reasonably can be expected to be.

And secondly, there was a troll campaign to delegitimize the election. We all know that from the troll posts in social media. And I argue in “Cyberwar: How Russian Trolls And Hackers Helped Elect A President,” Second Edition, that what we do know now from the available data was that what they did in the social media throughout the campaign wasn’t significant enough in its targeting and reach to have actually changed the outcome. I believe the hack and release was. It changed the media agenda and changed it in ways that could reasonably be taken to create a change that was strong enough to swing a close election. But that’s not my focus here. I want to focus on what it is they did to create sleeper cells that were not apparent during the regular campaign but were available to be activated as the election came to a close. These were individuals who weren’t ostensibly highly political, but – and their personae were not highly political, but they became political with allegations of rigging as we got closer to the election. And there was one site – a site pretending to be Tennessee Republicans – that’s @TEN__GOP – that actually managed to infiltrate a network news site with one of its fake posts. Gary, you should have some examples on the next slide.

So I’m just going to let you look at these, these sleeper cell. Next – @TEN__GOP pretending to be Tennessee Republicans and already quoted by news across the campaign as if they were, despite the fact that they weren’t. And the Tennessee Republicans were asking, how is this site getting more coverage and more play than we are? They have more viewers than we do, and we know they are not us. Next – another individual sleeper site, another sleeper site, @TEN__GOP, another sleeper site, another sleeper site. And here is the placement on NBC News. Be careful of what’s coming out of your local news streams. Please, local news journalists, look at every community digital source that you have and ask whether there are any cues in any of them that they’re not really in your community.

These people were coming from St. Petersburg. And if they’re there, having legitimized themselves by basically reposting stuff that’s elsewhere in the market, find out who owns them. Who are the individuals there? Can you actually identify them? If not, you may be sitting on a sleeper site that may have already aggregated up an audience and could potentially have influence in the closing days of the election or on the Election Day itself. My final point – let’s go back to 2000. We were conducting a rolling cross-sectional survey in 2000. That means we were in the field every day with a separate random sample, which means that we can look at day-to-day variability in effect, which cross-sections can’t let you do. In 2000, we asked, in your opinion, which best explains why the news media made mistakes in reporting the Florida results?

Carelessness or reporting the results before knowing who won – 56%. Honest mistake – the race was just too close – 21%. Reporters wanted Gore to win – 12%. We’re not in 2000 anymore. If reporters make mistakes in this election in an environment in which there’s widespread perception that the press is partisan, even the press that is not, we can’t afford to have that indictment be used in the future to further delegitimize news. It’s important that we get it right, not that we get it first, and that our language not inadvertently create a presumption that can influence the subsequent discussions. Thank you.

RICK WEISS: Fantastic and frightening. Thank you very much, Kathleen. I want to remind reporters that if you have questions, you can hover over the bottom of your screen to the Q and A and put them in there. But just while we’re tabulating the first questions coming in,

Q&A


How should reporters vet election-results in real time for accuracy?


[0:34:31]

RICK WEISS:  I wanted to take something you were just talking about, Kathleen, and throw it over to Julie. I’m wondering how you in real time are confirming that the material that’s coming your way that seems to be from actual sources, that may seem to come from state or other organizations, is or isn’t real. It’s a layer of confusion that I don’t think we really had to deal with until – in a serious way until this election.

[0:35:14]

JULIE PACE: Yeah, we’re certainly – I think this is the first election where we’re particularly prepared for it. You know, I think it was certainly an issue in ’16. I would say a couple things about this. You know, one, we have a whole team of journalists who, even beyond elections, focus on misinformation. And they have a range of skills. Some of them are more national security, you know, intelligence reporters. Others of them are just really great diggers and can find a lot of different materials. But this is a real skill. You know, this isn’t something that, you know, they’re just kind of standing up now. They’ve spent the last several years really becoming experts in this. You know, they – there are some sites that we just know. They’re publicly known now, you know, through security firms, through – you know, through Justice Department filings that these are disinformation sites. Those are the easy ones (unintelligible).

But there are also hallmarks of some of these sites or Twitter accounts. You know, with some of them, you can figure out pretty easily just by searching through when they were created. You know, if it’s a very new account, and they’ve got thousands and thousands of followers or even hundreds of followers, and they haven’t tweeted a lot, posted a lot, you know, that is a red flag that you want to say, hey, is that – you know, is that a real site there? Certainly, I think Kathleen’s point is a great one. You know, if it’s something masking as a local news source or a community outlet and you’ve never heard of it before, you probably want to take a minute here. The big thing that we always say, you know, whether we are focusing on misinformation or on an election or anything else is it’s really important to take your time.

And there’s no harm – you know, I mean, I work for the AP. We pride ourselves on being fast. These are situations where we purposely go slow. There is no benefit to rushing something out from a source where you don’t know if it is legit or not. You know, you want to take your time. And if you can’t verify the source of the information, just don’t publish. I mean, you can – I would much rather let another news organization, you know, run with something for a little while if I’m not certain of the origin of it. I think that these are, you know, moments where the decision to not put something forward and to do a little bit more reporting really is the right way to approach it.


What are the most reliable sources for state legislature election results?


[0:37:29]

RICK WEISS: Yeah, fantastic advice. Something you don’t often hear from news sources is that they’re willing to go a little bit slower. But I noticed this earlier also, I think, when Kathleen was talking – the phrase caution in the face of uncertainty. Maybe it was Lee. But if ever, this is the time, so great advice there. Thank you. We have a question here from Erica Moser. She’s a reporter at The Day, which is a daily newspaper covering Southeastern Connecticut. And she says this is a question for anybody. For covering state legislature races, what do you think is the most reliable source for results on election night? Where should reporters covering state races be when polls close?

JULIE PACE: Well, Erica, I don’t know if your news organization is an AP member, but we definitely call state legislative races. We call 7,000 races around a general election, and that will include state legislative races in every state. So please make sure, you know, to check and see. If you are an AP member, you should be getting those race calls from us. And then, in terms of where you want to be, you know, physically, I think it really depends on what your assignment is and what your goal is. You know, if you are the person that’s going to have to be writing the story and, you know, sending that to your editor when those races are being called, you know, you probably don’t want to be out at the polls. You know, you probably want to be – I don’t know if you’re working remotely right now, if you’re working from home, but you want to be in a, you know, safe space by your computer waiting for those race calls to come. But if you’re covering something like – you know, if you’re covering voters, if you’re covering potential voting issues, you know, maybe you want to find a polling place where throughout the day there have been some reports of long lines. You know, if there’s a place in your community that, you know, historically has some voting issues, maybe that’s where you want to position yourself. So I think it really depends on what your assignment is that night.

[0:39:18]

RICK WEISS: Right. Lee, while we’re on that, anything you want to add about, you know, tracking local or state elections, at least in terms of polls?

LEE MIRINGOFF: No, nothing to that. That…

RICK WEISS: Great.

LEE MIRINGOFF: That’s fine.

RICK WEISS: Great.

LEE MIRINGOFF: There’s not a lot of pre-polling on those, so you don’t have a lot to bounce off of. Again – and the pre-polls, pre-election polls, become less significant, obviously, on Election Day itself because then you have two other things. You have the surveys that are being conducted on Election Day plus the real votes.


Are foreign attempts at election interference down this year, or just going undetected?


[0:39:47]

RICK WEISS: OK, great. Here’s a question for you, Kathleen, from Darrel Rowland from the Columbus Dispatch in Ohio – for Dr. Jamieson. Darrel says, until last night, it seemed we heard nothing specific that foreign actors were doing this year, just generalized warnings from the federal agencies. Is your sense that the overt foreign attempts at manipulation are, in reality, down this year, or are they just not being detected?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: We don’t know. We do know that the platforms have been shutting down inauthentic accounts now on a very regular basis. In fact, it’s become so regular that it’s less newsworthy. So the – it’s not true to say there hasn’t been a lot of interdiction. There has been. It’s been by the platforms. We’ve had regular warnings from the intelligence people that the Russians are here, and the Russians are active. The question with Russians is, what are they doing? And then what is the relative amount of intervention of Russians compared to other nation states that are intervening? The biggest question right now is, since we’ve got some questions about whether we can trust what is said by Ratcliffe, for example, what is it that we actually know from a national security standpoint about what the level of intervention is and the kind of intervention?

The one that’s most worrisome, of course, is intervention in the actual electoral infrastructure. I’m still worrying about hacking, or at least because the reporters were so gullible as a result of exposure to it in 2016 that I think it created a discernible impact. But for practical purposes, when we say that we don’t believe there was an impact of electoral infrastructure intervention, you have to ask the question, would we have been able to detect it if it were there? The systems were not set up to know whether or not it was there. We are better set up now to know, and we’re better set up to catch (unintelligible) manipulation, in part because we have so much more paper balloting right now.

RICK WEISS: Let me just follow up with one thing you said there with regard to hack and release. You said reporters were so gullible. So could you unpack that a little bit and talk about how reporters can be less gullible? Are they just not supposed to be reporting on those types of things? Or what’s the process…

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: No.

RICK WEISS: …You would recommend?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Reporters should report on anything whose accuracy they can confirm that is newsworthy by traditional tests of newsworthiness. The problem in 2016 was a massive amount of data was dumped on reporters. And the AP did a lovely piece trying to document what that did to newsrooms and what it meant in terms of redeploying resources. So faced with a deluge, reporters made some mistakes, as you would expect under those circumstances that they would. But among them, they took content that was hacked out of context. That is, they took a statement that Hillary Clinton made about public and private positions out of its context. It was a discussion of “Lincoln” film by Steven Spielberg. It was not a confession to Wall Street bankers that she was taking one position on Dodd-Frank in public and another in private.

They also took “open trade and open borders,” quote-unquote, as if it’s what she said. In a statement – in the hacked statement as released, she said, hemispheric common market – first, that narrows it geographically – involving open trade and open borders – same sentence – sometime in the future – same sentence. And the rest of the sentence is about energy transfer. By the time the press got it digested on the Sunday news shows on October 9 – the hack and release was first covered in October 7 – released October 7, covered immediately thereafter – reporters had in major instances dropped the back end of that sentence so that she said she stood for open trade and open borders, period. When Chris Wallace says that’s what she said in the third debate, thereby exposing over 60 million people to that, he’s increasing the likelihood that people believe that’s actually what she said, while a whole lot of journalism before that has dropped out the rest of the statement, so why would they think anything else? She now, when she says, I didn’t say that, I said – and fills in the rest – sounds disingenuous. The likelihood that a person watching the debate compared to someone not watching in the presence of controls will say that she says one thing in public and another in private goes up at a statistically significant level. That increases in the projection from that to a vote – the likelihood they will vote against her.


How should reporters frame an election result in which one candidate has won the popular vote and the other has won the Electoral College?


[0:43:54]

RICK WEISS: Yeah, an amazing example of how a little thing like that can amplify and make a huge difference in front of tons of people. That’s a fantastic example. Thank you. A question here for any of the three of you. Any suggestions for framing stories if there’s a result in which one candidate has won the popular vote and the other has won the Electoral College?

LEE MIRINGOFF: It has happened.

RICK WEISS: (Laughter) I…

JULIE PACE: I…

RICK WEISS: Yeah, go ahead.

[0:44:22]

JULIE PACE: I mean, we literally went through this, you know, in ’16. The reality is we hold elections in this country on a state-by-state basis, and the winner of the election is the person who won the Electoral College, who got to 270. And I think there is no point in sort of misleading or confusing your audience by making an equivocation between the winner of the Electoral College vote and the winner of the popular vote. Those are not – you don’t win anything. You get a nice feel-good, I guess, if you get the – if you win the popular vote. But, you know, ask Hillary Clinton about how that is going. I would say, you know, I do think, particularly coming out of Election Day – I mean, I should say quickly that we won’t fully know what the popular vote totals are on election night, in part because so much vote is going to be coming in after election night. And that’s not just in the battleground states.

You know, California counts extremely slowly. (Inaudible) is an overwhelmingly Democratic state. So that popular vote total will change for several days. And so you really won’t even be able to say definitively what the popular vote is. You know, I think there is a lot of good reporting to explore around the idea of, you know, how we are set up in this country so that you can have a situation where that happens, what it means for political divisions in this country, what it means for a president’s ability to govern. In terms of framing a story around the winner of the election, there is only one way to win (laughter), and we really have to stick with that.

[0:45:57]

LEE MIRINGOFF: Yeah. I would just add to that, I mean, you know, the popular vote is like in a baseball game. It’s how many runs you get, but the Electoral College is how many wins you get. And in the sense, it’s all about the wins, not whether you just get a lot of runs. But I think to the point there, I think it’s important to recognize that there are certain, for lack of a better phrase, geopolitical forces. We’ve had an incredible population movement where the red states are getting redder and the blue states are getting bluer and the population is clustering in certain ways that, in fact, it’s happened two times in the last five years that we’ve had this popular vote-Electoral College difference. We see it in the elections for the U.S. Senate. Obviously, Wyoming has two senators, and so does California, so there’s going to be a very different representation pattern. And increasingly, we’re seeing the governing numbers and the popular numbers diverging, such that when Kavanaugh won the confirmation, the senators who voted for him, only 48% of the population was represented in his winning vote in the Senate, whereas 52% of the population was represented in his losing vote. So we have – and this is a really difficult situation that we are not going to solve. And it wasn’t Donald Trump’s creation. We’re not to solve it either way in 2020, regardless of what happens.

RICK WEISS: (Inaudible).

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: But there’s…

RICK WEISS: Oh, go ahead, Kathleen.

[0:47:32]

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: There’s one other thing. When election is very close, the – we’ve got to get out of the perception that we’ve got ability through survey research to tell us anything. For practical purposes, the way to construct Florida in 2000 is to say, it is, for practical purpose, a tie. And it wasn’t – we have to get a framework around what does close mean as we’re working out through our legal process what’s going to count and what isn’t so that we suspend the language that can create the presumption that one side has already really won and it’s just a question of whether we’re going to confirm it or not.


When can the public realistically expect to know who the next president will be?


[0:48:17]

RICK WEISS: Here’s a question, actually, for all three of you. Maybe this is just, you know, an educated guess, or maybe you can draw on your own particular expertise this year. But it’s a question, of course, that we all have. When do you realistically think we will know who the next president will be? Why don’t we just go through the three of you? And I want to poll the three of you on this. Julie, you willing to go on the record with a guess?

JULIE PACE: I do not. (Laughter) I do not. No, I – look; I just will go back to what I said at the start. It all depends on the margin. You know, I mean, in a – the closer the race is, the later it will be.

RICK WEISS: Yeah.

[0:48:54]

JULIE PACE: If we are in a situation where there’s a pretty comfortable margin and, you know, we can call – one thing I would watch for as, like, sort of a signal of when we might be able to call the race is, you know, can we call Florida? After Florida’s really bad (laughter) 2000 election, you know, they’re – they’ve actually become quite good at, you know, tabulating votes. They’re quite fast. And, you know, and because there’s a split – I won’t get too wonky on this, but because there’s a split poll close time in Florida – most of the state closes at 7, but the panhandle closes at 8 – we actually have a whole lot of information about that state before the polls close officially in part of that state, which means there’s a decent chance we could call Florida. If we call Florida on election night and we call it for Joe Biden, he’s having a really good night.

If we call it for Donald Trump, it means his path is still really open. So I just think, you know, you want to kind of look for some signals along the way that might tell you even directionally where things are going, even if we haven’t been able to fully call the race that night.

RICK WEISS: Yeah, yeah. Go ahead, Kathleen.

[0:49:55]

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Yeah, the – there’s a line somewhere – I think it’s in T.S. Eliot – about – between potency and act falls the shadow. We have never had an election in which the difference between potency and act was so great. Right now, we’re all making the assumption it’s going to be close based on, first, the concern that last time, when people didn’t realize that it was, they were wrong. But secondly, based on polling data and factoring in margins of error, this time, my likelihood when I tell you I’m going to vote that that vote will actually be counted is less than it’s ever been before because of all sorts of factors we never even thought we had before. Will the post office deliver the mail? More people than not are at home. Do we have a hurricane, a pandemic outcome and a hot spot someplace? All of those factors are at play here. And I’m – and as we’re conceptualizing the election, I would like to keep open the possibility that we will know the outcome at 11 o’clock election night and also the outcome that we will know it three weeks later because I think that’s the range of uncertainty that surrounds the difference between knowing potency and knowing act inside this election.

[0:51:03]

LEE MIRINGOFF: And you articulated the concern I really have when I ended by talking about the polls can be both right and wrong at the same time – right in their accuracy to measure public opinion, but inaccurate because we don’t know what’s going to be counted or not. And depending on which conspiracy theory we all buy into – and we all have a couple of our own favorites, I guess. But, you know, last time, we had all kinds of social media hacking and international stuff. My concern right now is the question of what the court system is going to be doing and who’s going to be making what decisions. I can’t help but notice that yesterday’s press conference was a hurry-up press conference which was called perhaps because Barack Obama was having a big speech that day. I didn’t think the news was earth-shattering. And certainly, there weren’t – weren’t a bulletin.

I think the fact that there’s so much effort to get the Supreme Court nominee approved before the election so that she would be sitting on the bench after the election is just as good. I mean, you know, the Senate’s not going to change in terms of that vote for quite some time. But yet, there seems to be a desire to push. So I’m worried about that we are maybe fighting and winning the last war, which Kathleen alluded to. We seem to know things. We can recognize things. We know stuff that’s fake coming through better. But I’m concerned more about the legal processes of what’s going to be counted and the mail, you know, with the Postal Service, which seems to have been tampered with in a way that I find, you know, very concerning. So that’s my soapbox.


How should reporters cover public declarations of success before official results are reported?


[0:52:48]

RICK WEISS: We have time just for a couple more questions here. And I want to try to consolidate this question that has to do with how to handle coverage of public declarations of success when perhaps the news team is not as convinced. And combined with that, there’s a question about demonstrations in support of a candidate and what kind of preparations are in place to cover what’s going on not just in the ballot box, but the street. Julie, do you want to address any of that?

JULIE PACE: Sure. I can do the last one first. I mean, we have a whole team that is set up for this election to cover the possibility of protests and unrest. You know, we are, you know, in touch with law enforcement sources, just working, you know, our sources across the country to try to get a sense of where law enforcement is picking up any indications of protests. Obviously, you know, you never know where something is going to pop up. You know, we obviously are hopeful that there is no, you know, major unrest in the U.S. around the election, but we are prepared for that possibility if it does happen. I would say, you know, based on the tension that we have seen in the country this year, I think, you know, it probably makes the likelihood of that a bit higher than in past years.


What are some key takeaways for journalists covering election night?


[0:54:05]

RICK WEISS: Great. At this point, you know, we’ve just got a couple – three minutes left, so I’d like to just go around the horn one last time. It’s been so interesting hearing your perspectives on these things. If there’s one take-home message that you want to make sure that reporters walk away with today, something that will resonate with them throughout the next three weeks or so as they do this important work, I’d love to hear your take on it and expand on that a little bit. I’ll do the same order again, so, Julie, if you’d pick up that ball right here, it’s all yours.

[0:54:37]

JULIE PACE: Sure. I mean, I would just say the biggest thing to do is, you know, for whatever race you are covering, do the homework around what the rules are around voting. They are very different. In some cases, you may have covered a state for a long time, and the rules are different this year. They are different state to state. And knowing those rules, making sure you understand what vote can be counted when, when deadlines are, how much vote could be left outstanding really will help you explain to your audience, prepare them now for it and explain on election night why something might be happening around the results. I think that’s really crucial.

LEE MIRINGOFF: Yeah.

RICK WEISS: Great.

LEE MIRINGOFF: Yeah. I was just going to say that although I’m not a journalist, I would say that it applies to us as citizens as well to consider the source of information because, as both panelists have alluded to, I mean, we’re getting a lot of different stuff coming through the pipeline. And I think it’s very important to consider the source. And then if I have any advice, I would just say, as I tell my students at Marist, vote for whoever’s ahead in the Marist poll.

RICK WEISS: OK. Kathleen, hit us with some wisdom here.

[0:55:46]

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Be aware of your presuppositions. It’s hard to do, but ask, what’s the presupposition built into the report I’m about to file or the statement I’m about to utter on air? Those presuppositions shape the language that you use, and they, as a result, shape the frame of your audience. And that can create context that can influence the way in which people are able to act. Right now, if I can put in a footnote, every time someone says court packing, as opposed to expand the number of justices on the court, they have primed language which benefits one side of an argument. It is not appropriate to do that. And, journalists, if you will, please stop calling things fake news. By saying fake news, you delegitimize your own enterprise. If it’s a viral, call it viral deception, VD – venereal disease. You don’t want to catch it, spread it. And if you get it, quarantine it.

RICK WEISS: Actually, I’m so glad you brought that up. Thank you. I just saw the headline today – it had the term court packing on The New York Times’ website. And I believe that was sort of the words de jure, and without recognizing that that carries an extra message with it. I want to thank the three of you so much for bringing all your collective wisdom and insights to this discussion. It’s so important. And I know it’s going to continue, and you’ll (ph) work over the next several weeks trying to help. And I hope that together, we can ensure that the institution of journalism rises to the challenge and does as good a job as is possible to get through this really complicated time. Thank you all so much. Thank you all who attended this briefing. I want to remind you before you go that as you click off, you will see a prompt for a very short three-question poll. It is so helpful for us if you would just take a half a minute and answer those three questions so that we can ensure that these kinds of media briefings continue to be useful for you. Please follow us on @RealSciLine. Check out our website at sciline.org. And we’ll sign off. Thank you all so much. Good afternoon.


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Dr. Kathleen Hall Jamieson

University of Pennsylvania

Kathleen Hall Jamieson is the Elizabeth Ware Packard Professor of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, the Walter and Leonore Director of the university’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, and program director of the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands. Dr. Jamieson has authored or co-authored 16 books, most recently Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President. She is the co-founder of FactCheck.org and its subsidiary site, SciCheck, and director of The Sunnylands Constitution Project. Dr. Jamieson earned a B.A. in rhetoric and public address from Marquette University and an M.S. and a Ph.D. in communication arts from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. (Read full bio)

Dr. Lee Miringoff

Marist College Institute for Public Opinion

Lee M. Miringoff is the director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. He is the former president of the National Council on Public Polls and a current member of its board of trustees. He is also a trustee of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research. Lee is a frequent commentator on politics and elections and is often quoted in print and digital media. Lee has appeared regularly on television and radio as an expert on public opinion, politics, and polling. Dr. Miringoff received his B.A. from Clark University and his Ph.D. in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (Read full bio)

Julie Pace

The Associated Press

Julie Pace is the Washington bureau chief for The Associated Press, directing AP’s coverage of the presidency, politics and the U.S. government. Previously she was AP’s White House correspondent, contributing aggressive news reporting and sharp analysis to the AP news report. She joined AP in 2007 as a multimedia reporter, developing and executing AP’s plans for live video coverage of 2008′s election day and the inauguration of President Barack Obama. A native of Buffalo, New York, Pace began her career as a reporter in 2003 at South Africa’s only independent television network, before spending two years reporting on politics and elections at the Tampa Tribune and its partner television station WFLA. She is a graduate of Northwestern University. (Read full bio)

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