TV coverage urges caution, but is tempted to predict

In the most unprecedented of election years, TV networks preached admirable caution Tuesday about voting results. But some still couldn’t resist parsing tea leaves too small for helpful analysis and injecting too much horse-race hype, down to the ever-present countdown clocks and the magic, touch-screen maps that can hash out every electoral possibility.

After a most unusual campaign defined by a once-in-a-century pandemic and a president anticipating  “rigged” mail-in voting results, networks made special efforts to explain how to analyze the contest between President Trump and Joe Biden, which featured a historic, record-setting early tally tabulated on different timetables, depending on the state.

Although TV journalists have been warning viewers for weeks that it might take days or longer to determine a winner, they weren’t always taking their own advice on election night. As President Trump performed well in a number of states based on Election Day turnout, as predicted, some networks created the impression that the results were more definitive.

Networks added to the confusion by not clearly delineating how different states were tallying ballots cast in multiple ways, although the pandemic-year election made it exceptionally difficult to explain.

The coverage also featured separate exit polling systems, with ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN teaming together on one process while Fox News and the Associated Press conducted another. 

President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden debate in September at Case Western University in Cleveland.

We looked at how TV presented Tuesday’s voting news on the seven major broadcast and cable-news networks, which featured expanded election desks to allow for social distancing..

Maps of red, blue and not enough white

11:05 p.m. EST: What networks showed didn’t always match what they said. CNN neatly broke down its election map into red and blue states, even though many had not been called,  creating a misleading impression. (Geographical maps already visually favor Republicans, because large rural states with few electoral votes take up more space than smaller states with much larger allocations.)

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