Millions of Americans went to bed on Election Night thinking Republican candidate George W. Bush had been elected the 43rd president of the United States. But by the next morning, it was clear voters in the state of Florida had managed to elude the projections of nearly every network analyst in the nation - twice.
At about 8 p.m. Tuesday, the five major television networks and The Associated Press all predicted Democrat Al Gore would be the winner in Florida. A short time later, all six organizations retracted their projections.
Just after midnight it became clear that Florida's 25 electoral votes would put either candidate over the top in the hunt for the 270 electoral votes required to win the presidency.
At 2 a.m., the same five networks, minus the AP, called Florida for Bush and pronounced him the next president of the United States. After 3 a.m., the networks made their third and final call of the night - saying the race in Florida was too close to call.
Three weeks after the votes were cast, the election isn't the only thing still up in the air - some think the media's credibility is as well.
Several major television networks have begun internal investigations into their Election Night activities in hopes of discovering what went wrong and why projection practices that worked in the past failed this time around.
But while the media is looking into the problems of Election Night, some in the industry have gone on damage control duty to counter the harsh criticism they have received from various media analysts after the election miscalls.
Not only are the networks looking into the miscalculations on Election Night, Congress is as well.
A congressional probe planned for January will look into the networks' early calls of the presidential race in Florida and its impact in places where polls had not yet closed.
Steve Randall, senior analyst at the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, said this year's election coverage is just another incident that has caused public perception of the news media to take a downhill slide.
He said the reason the networks made premature calls was simple - they violated one of the principal rules of journalism by relying upon a single source, the Voter News Service (VNS), to make their calls.
VNS is an organization funded by ABC News, CBS News, CNN, Fox News, NBC News and the AP and provides projections to all of them on Election Night.
Like Randall, UNC journalism Professor Charlie Tuggle said the projections and retractions on Election Night indicate serious problems in the way the networks handle election coverage.
Tuggle, who recently conducted an audience assessment poll on live news reporting, said that according to his survey, the networks' rush to be the first to report election winners was unnecessary because most viewers care more about a network's accuracy than whether it is the first to break a story.
The recent criticism the networks are receiving from media watchdog groups and analysts in the aftermath of the election has some in the broadcast industry on the defensive.
Barbara Cochrane, president of the Radio-Television News Directors' Association, blamed this year's miscalls on the closeness of the race. "Very few elections are as close as this one. That's what made the calls more difficult," she said.
Cochrane said that while this year's miscalls were understandable given the closeness of the race, they were unfortunate because candidates often rely on the networks when deciding whether they should celebrate or concede. "When the networks declared Bush had won Florida, Gore was relying on that and prepared to make his concession speech and then had to take it back," she said.
The networks themselves are keeping quiet, at least until they complete their internal investigations.
Kelly Keane, a spokeswoman for CNN, would not go into detail about CNN's projection procedure, but she said the network relied upon information from VNS in conjunction with its own research to make its projections.
Keane said there is an internal investigation under way at CNN. She refused to comment on whether CNN sacrificed accuracy to make the first projection.
"Again, that's part of the review. We're dissecting what happened on that night, so I really can't comment," she said.
CBS was slightly more vocal about its calls on Election Night. Sandy Genelius, vice president for communications at CBS News, said the network takes full responsibility for its miscalls on Election Night. She said assertions that the networks were trying to make excuses for the miscalls were false.
"We are in no way trying to skirt the issue. We want to make sure it never happens again," she said.
Genelius said that while this year's mistakes were unfortunate, historically, the networks have a good record when it comes to accuracy in projections. "In 40 years of calling races, the success rate is pretty high."
VNS also is keeping quiet on its role in the election.
Lee Shapiro, director of media relations at VNS, said her organization's role in this election was simply to disseminate information to the six news agencies so the outlets could in turn make their own calls. "We are here to provide our six member organizations with tools to analyze the election," she said.
Shapiro refused to comment on why VNS might have been wrong in its premature projection of Bush winning Florida, but she said VNS is conducting an internal investigation into the matter.
Shapiro would not personally comment on how VNS decided to call states, but did provide a written statement detailing the process. According to the statement, exit poll data, geographic information, demographic data, past voting history and official vote returns are collected from randomly selected sample precincts in a state. Then VNS statisticians run that data through a variety of statistical models, which then enables them to project the outcome of races in that state.
The statement said VNS projects final winners as soon as it is "statistically confident they are correct."
When the smoke finally clears, the miscalls of this year's elections might impact the way elections are covered in the future.
Northwestern University journalism Professor Robert McClory said this year's election miscalls will make the networks less likely to call close elections, but only in the short run.
"I think they'll be so conscious (of this year's miscalls), I think they'll be cautious of races that are particularly close," he said. "At least for a while."
McClory said that while the networks might exercise more caution during the next couple of elections, they will most likely revert back to their previous practice of calling elections based on the reports of only a few precincts within a few elections' cycles after the stigma of this year's miscalls has worn off.
McClory said this year's election miscalls might make the public more skeptical of network election projection.
But he said public skepticism of the media existed long before this election. "I think (the public has) been getting gradually skeptical, not because (the media) miscalled (the election), but because they call (elections) so early."
McClory said this year's miscalls were primarily due to the competition between networks to be the first to announce the winner.
McClory, a former priest, then added, "I think recklessness is the mortal sin of journalism."
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