The polls have closed but it could be days or even weeks before we know who will be US president for the next four years. So, how do broadcasters plan to cover elections dominated by uncertainty resulting from mail-in voting, coronavirus and claims of fraud?
As polls begin to close on the 2020 US Election, broadcasters across the globe will kick into gear, with most major news channels expected to run extensive coverage of the results.
But as IBC365 established in the first part of this election special, the 2020 election is unique among the 58 US Presidential Elections, because of issues such as the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic and the surge in mail-in voting.
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On top of this, the US electorate is more polarised than ever, according to a study from the NCBI, meaning there will be even more interest in the contest between president Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden.
For broadcasters, the polarisation poses a unique challenge: How do you cover such a heated and divisive election fairly, when the nature of the vote you mean you may not be able to declare a victor on election night specials.
CNN SVP & Washington bureau chief Sam Feist explains to IBC365: “People forget that in two of the last five elections, we have gone to bed without a president-elect. Everyone remembers 2000 where Florida was the deciding state, so it is not unusual for elections not to be decided on Election Day, especially this year because mail-in ballots take longer to count.
“We’ve had to think carefully about the types of places where we can do outside broadcasts…we’re having to look at venues where we can interview people without the risk of them getting ill,” Sam Woodhouse, BBC
“You have to open them, you have to process them, and so it could be that we don’t know until Wednesday or Thursday or even later. But I think the vast majority of the votes in the country will be counted by late in election week.
“I believe that we will likely know a winner. It just may not be on election night. And that’s okay. That doesn’t mean anything is wrong. The public, the media, the candidates just need to be a little bit patient.”
The challenge, then, is how to channel that patience, when the news agenda by its very nature looks for clarity and answers.
Can technology play a role in countering this uncertainty? CNN’s coverage, which will be led by veteran anchors Dana Bash, Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper, Abby Phillip and Jake Tapper from the network’s Election Center in Washington, will place reporters across key swing states, along with several situated in the Trump and Biden camps.
In terms of keeping people up to date, John King’s “Magic Wall” – a Multi-Touch Collaboration Wall developed by Perceptive Pixel – will once again take centre stage.
“If you’ve watched CNN’s Election Night, you’ll know we have John King at the Magic Wall who spends much of election night explaining why we haven’t projected a winner in a particular state. He goes county by county, reveals how many votes are left to come in, how many votes have been counted, which counties have not reported much vote,” adds Feist.
“This year, of course, we will layer in the absentee vote throughout the night in our conversation. If we’re not ready to project a state, we’re not ready to project a state. That doesn’t mean anything is wrong. And we will make it clear to our viewers and our readers that there’s simply not enough information to make a projection and if a candidate declares victory ahead of time, that they’re doing it before the votes have been counted and the result is based in fact.”
NBC News has assembled a team named Vote Watch, made up of investigative correspondents and legal experts who specialize in election law and voting rights.
“We had a version of this team in the last election cycle, and we’ve dramatically expanded it and gotten into work early this cycle because we believe that these issues will be central to the outcome,” NBC News President Noah Oppenheim told the LA Times.
Need for patience
The potential delay poses a unique challenge for editors and showrunners who may look to the tell the story of the night but could be left telling a story without an ending.
Covid has “greatly affected the way that Americans cast their vote” explains BBC Election Night editor Sam Woodhouse. “It will have quite an effect on the way that the results come in. In a lot of states, they don’t start processing the mail in ballots until the day of the election. The people who have voted in person may show up in the very first results and this may give a misleading impression.
“It will actually be an election where we’re not so much pointing at the numbers and saying, this is what’s happening. We may be pointing the numbers and trying to explain if that’s happening or not.”
So how, as a broadcaster, can you tackle this? One thing both broadcasters and their audience need to have is patience.
“We have to get election night right,” James Goldston, president of ABC News, said in an interview with ABC’s daily podcast “Start Here.” “On the flip side of that, I think what the audience has to expect on that night… I would use two words: uncertainty and patience.
“I’m actually super relaxed about it,” he said of delayed projections. “My overall message to the team, both to our decision desk and to everyone associated with our coverage on election night, is the only mistake we could really make is if we get this wrong.”
CNN’s Feist agrees: “This is going to be an election like no other, we’ve heard that over and over. But I’m not sure that the counting or reporting of the votes are going to be a whole lot different. In fact, I think there’s every reason to believe it’s going to be orderly. But I really believe that if we don’t have a winner on election night, there’s a very good possibility that we’re going to know the answer on Wednesday or Thursday because the vast majority of votes will have been counted by then.”
For Woodhouse, TV coverage could really come into its own in this sort of situation. While many people are turning away from linear TV for news, with social media platforms like Twitter gaining market share according to Ofcom, the linear TV format lends itself to wading through uncertainty.
“This is where television is still useful in the age of digital and the internet,” he explains. “You can keep track of the numbers and the vote count online, but there is a lot of added value in telling you what it means. That is where chat and guests have their value.”
One of the highlights of any election broadcast is getting out to the people. Crowds inevitably gather to celebrate, or commiserate, as their preferred candidate romps home to victory, or slumps to a defeat.
Though the challenges outlined above show that there may not be much celebrating done on actual election night, the Covid pandemic also presents significant barriers in getting to people directly.
The vox pop – Latin for voice of the people – plays a key role in most election broadcasts. So, what precautions will these broadcasters take to make sure any interactions with the public are carried out in a safe and secure manner?
The BBC will plant reporters in “six or seven” key states, Woodhouse says. Of Covid-19, he adds: “It is certainly going to be a big factor.
“We’ve had to think carefully about the types of places where we can do outside broadcasts. Normally we’d do bars or lively places to vox pop American voters. Instead we’re having to look at venues where we can interview people without the risk of them getting ill.”
In practical terms, this means locations like Miami Beach, in the swing state of Florida, is fine – Florida weather even in November is in20-30 degree Celsius range. But locations like Michigan, where temperatures may reach 15 degrees during the day if voters in the swing state are lucky, are much harder to arrange.
ITN’s Michael Herrod explains: “It has been much harder to plan for due to the travel restrictions, but we are sending a team similar in size to four years ago now that we have an ability to get to the US.
“The units will be based with teams following each of the candidates as well as in key states such as Florida and Michigan.”
CNN has pledged to expand its coverage by placing reporters across more than a dozen swing states. All will maintain social distancing rules and be set up so as to be Covid safe.
Feist says: “In short, we’re expanding our reporting to reflect the realities of an election amidst a global pandemic. Mail-in ballots take longer to count, so we’re deploying resources to keep viewers apprised of updates on vote counts and reports, which may extend beyond November 3.
“As well as anchoring from the CNN Election Center in Washington, we’ll have correspondents, analysts and reporters live from voting locations in over a dozen key swing states to provide non-stop, comprehensive coverage of this consequential presidential election.”
He concludes: “This is going to be an election like no other, we’ve heard that over and over. But I’m not sure that the counting or reporting of the votes are going to be a whole lot different. In fact, I think there’s every reason to believe it’s going to be orderly. But I really believe that if we don’t have a winner on election night, there’s a very good possibility that we’re going to know the answer on Wednesday or Thursday because the vast majority of votes will have been counted by then.”
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