Dancing on the Head of the Pin: Election Night 2020 and the Future of Local News

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As Election Day nears, the stakes of this election are coming into sharper focus. For news organizations, this election, specifically election night represents a crucial moment for the institution of the press. In January of this year, it was clear that the presidential race and all of the associated down-ticket races across the country would be a rollercoaster. We did not know just how steep the drops would be. 

We are now just a few short days from Nov. 3. The country has been ravaged by a pandemic that is still very much raging, the effects of which have flowed through every facet of life including our elections. All of this is occurring against a backdrop where Americans’ trust in media outlets and our civic institutions has eroded. 

Some of this erosion is a direct result of the decline in trustworthy local news outlets. As I covered in last month’s column, partisan actors have taken advantage of news deserts across the country, building vast networks of sites that mimic local news, but espouse a clear agenda. When citizens don’t have objective local news, they begin to look elsewhere for information, like these types of sites or their Facebook feeds. The problem is, platforms allow us to allow in viewpoints that we “like” and filter out facts that don’t comport with our sense of identity or pre-existing notions about the world around us. Much of the time we aren’t even aware that it’s happening.  

That is why how news outlets choose to cover election outcomes on election night and beyond matters. For our system of democracy to work, citizens need to have faith in it. News, specifically local news, plays an important role in bolstering trust in our democratic institutions by calling the balls and strikes and, where necessary, holding them to account. When Americans have access to good, unbiased information, we are stronger as a country and democracy. I believe that this year, we are up against some deep-seeded suspicions about the validity of the election and the democratic process. I hope I am wrong.

We know that the process of voting this year has gotten more complicated in some circumstances due to the pandemic. More states are opening up to early voting and voting by mail than ever before to keep voters safe. These changes will make counting votes more challenging and time consuming. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to worry about it. States would count the votes as expeditiously as possible, and we’d patiently wait for the results to report them accurately. But there will be enormous pressure to be the first to make calls and report results and voters will be anxious to see them. 

It’s not like news outlets have missed calls before. The Chicago Daily Tribune infamously ran the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.” Truman, of course, defeated Dewey handily. But at that time, there was more margin for error. Trust in democratic institutions, including the news, was still largely intact and widespread. This year is different. We are standing on the head of a pin and information moves much more quickly than it did then.

Cable news networks and social media platforms have been gaming out various scenarios. How should results be reported? When should the call be made?  Just how this plays out remains to be seen. While many Americans will be tuning in to their televisions or will be watching their social media feeds, local news still has an extraordinarily important role to play and we have to play it carefully. There will be local races across the country, from House races to township council, that we will cover. These races will very likely have similar issues as will unfold nationally. 

As local news outlets, we need to make sure that our readers understand the process. It is critical that we report on the facts and communicate clearly and openly with readers. We too must resist the urge to make calls too quickly. If we are wrong, we will contribute to the erosion of trust. 

Election night 2020 will likely put us to the test, but if we do it right, we can help lead the way in rebuilding trust in the news.

Michael Shapiro is publisher and CEO of http://TAPinto.net, a network of 80+ franchised online local news sites in New Jersey, New York and Florida.  

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