News organizations readying for the midterms are facing a tougher atmosphere than ever when projecting winners on election night.
Former President Trump’s refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election, his fury at Fox News for calling Arizona for Joe Biden and the dozens of GOP candidates who have followed his lead in questioning the validity of election results is making the projection of races an even more fraught process than before.
“You can go back to the 2000 election, you can go back to certainly the last election, the way that Fox News made the call in Arizona and the way the Trump campaign responded, it’s a difficult position news organizations find themselves in the sense that they don’t want to find themselves in the center of the story,” said Benjamin Toff, senior research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
“For the people involved it’s a really uncomfortable position to be in and so they’re all very careful about not wanting to prematurely call a race based on insufficient data and evidence,” he said.
David Scott, who as vice president of news strategy and operations at The Associated Press oversees one of the largest election coverage operations in the country, told The Hill this week the AP is prepared for the biggest election night spotlight the outlet has been in since 2020.
“Even in this moment for our democracy where there is a lot of misinformation and intense focus on the vote count, we take comfort in the standard that we’ve used and the care and the effort that goes into calling races. That has always served us well and is also the right one for this moment,” Scott said.
Across the country, dozens of news leaders are prepping plans to deliver race calls in real-time, a complicated and painstaking science that uses reporting from various localities, data from recent elections and exit polling to quantify leaders and eventual winners in races for the House, Senate and other contests.
Projections have been controversial or wrong in the past. The night of the presidential election of 2000, networks inaccurately called the race for either Democrat Al Gore or Republican George W. Bush.
More recently, Trump was infuriated and complained about the Arizona projection to the highest levels of Fox’s management before falsely telling his supporters he had won.
Fox stood by the call and has brought Decision Desk Director Arnon Mishkin, who took intense flak from Trump supporters in 2020, back for the network’s coverage of the 2022 and 2024 elections.
Trump has continued to push unsubstantiated claims about the election, and a number of Republicans running for office in this year’s midterms have backed those allegations.
Those denials are having an effect on public opinion. An ABC News poll earlier this year found only 20 percent of Americans have a high level of confidence in election systems.
Because of this, industry experts say it is more imperative than ever that news organizations peel back the curtain for their audiences and explain the nuances of how votes are counted and projections are made.
“We put the Decision Desk right in the studio and I can talk directly to our viewers, so that you get it straight from us. When we’re seeing something, we show it to viewers,” said Anthony Salvanto, CBS News’s director of elections and surveys. “My goal is to always be able to deliver an explanation for what’s happening in very specific terms.”
Salvanto said his network will this cycle have a renewed emphasis on outlining for viewers which ballot types are being counted on election night, citing partisan trends in same-day versus early or mail-in voting.
“That will be a challenge because it’s something we’ve seen emerge over the last couple of cycles in greater numbers,” he said.
Especially for the national television networks, pressure to fill airtime with election result analysis can be immense as results are reported, in some cases slowly, from local governments and others counting votes across the country.
“The things the networks need to be careful about, and for the most part they are, is making sure the audience understands what a Steve Kornacki or a John King are doing on Election Day,” said Mark Lukasiewicz, a former network executive and now dean of the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University. He referenced the MSNBC and CNN personalities connected to analysis and election night projections at those two networks.
“They are not predicting the outcome, they are not sitting there with the results telling you, ‘Here’s how we think people are going to vote.’ What they are saying is, ‘Based on the historical models, we believe that once all the votes have been counted this is where it’s gonna land.’ That’s a subtle but important distinction.”
Complicating matters further for the media organizations tracking election results minute by minute is the declining nationwide trust in public opinion polling and exit polls on election night.
In recent years, media companies have found content relating to how voting works has resonated with audiences and are looking to capitalize on that trend as they work to create more transparency and faith in the process.
“Readers, viewers, news consumers, voters … they are super interested in that. They want that information,” Scott said. “Some of the content that we would call explanatory journalism where we are pulling back the curtain and explaining what we’re doing is some of the most popular stories and videos and story telling that we do on election night. It really signals an interest in democracy. People want to know what’s taking place.”