On Nov. 3, 1948, the front page of the Chicago Daily Tribune boldly (and incorrectly) claimed, "Dewey defeats Truman." The 2000 presidential election was complicated by the major TV networks calling the race for Al Gore before Florida results were final. And more recently, members of the news media faced criticism of their coverage of the 2016 election and then-candidate Donald Trump.
Covering presidential elections has always been a challenge, but this year's unprecedented election creates new obstacles for reporters trying to tell the story and citizens trying to find reliable information.
Elaine Monaghan, professor of practice in The Media School, is a veteran reporter, writer and foreign correspondent who has covered contentious elections in Russia and Belarus. She sheds light on the challenges reporters are up against and shares tips for being a smart news consumer on election night.
What are some challenges reporters face when covering national elections?
"There are a number of challenges when covering any election, any year, anywhere in the world, but the most pressing is almost always the deadline," Monaghan said. "Not wanting to be left behind by your competition creates a really tough balancing act between the urgency to be first and the need for accuracy."
In addition to racing to be the first to file their story, Monaghan said journalists have to ensure that their reporting is as objective as possible so as not to influence election results. They must also be quick to correct any errors.
"The faster moving a story is, the higher the risk for error," she said. "While you can do a certain degree of preparation for covering election night, there are many moving parts to keep track of, and every reporter is human and likely to make mistakes sometimes. As a consumer, you want to focus on getting your news in places that show a high commitment to accuracy and corrections. Those are the places reporters are more likely to be held to account and fact-checked by editors."
Reporters face rules and regulations regarding news gathering in and around polling sites. For example, some state statutes prohibit photography inside polling locations, while others require reporters to remain a certain distance from entrances and exits to the polls.
What new challenges come with covering this year's election?
In 2016, Monaghan said, the news media struggled with how best to cover the candidate Donald Trump, as the national sentiment was that he did not have a serious shot at the White House. While she thinks reporters have learned many lessons from 2016 while covering this election, President Trump is still creating some obstacles for them.
"This election cycle we've seen President Trump deflecting questions from journalists who are wearing face masks and his team declining to wear masks themselves, so there is an ongoing question about how safe it is to cover his campaign," Monaghan said. "Traditionally, the context in which you sometimes get more detailed information is literally called a huddle -- a group of reporters gathered around an official. Clearly, that's not safe this year."
Staying safe during the coronavirus pandemic also makes it more complicated to find voters to interview for stories. While journalists are using technology to recreate the "vox pop," or person on the street interview, Monaghan said it's not a perfect fix.
"From a reporter's perspective, it is so much harder to interview and interact with people when you can't look them in the eye and breathe the same air they do," she said.
Where should citizens look for reliable information on election night?
Monaghan recommends that those hoping for reliable information on election night look to The Associated Press, the BBC, NPR, PBS and Reuters.
"I would check in with these news organizations first, because I know they won't be running information speculatively, and I'm aware of their obsession with accuracy," she said.
Those interested in following the "horse race" as election returns trickle in may choose to get their news from television networks. But Monaghan said they should keep in mind that those reports are fast moving and unofficial, and that the final results from battleground states may take weeks to come in.
"Until it's on the AP wire," Monaghan said of official results, "I'm not going to believe it."
What are some tips for spotting misinformation?
Monaghan said that while social media platforms have been getting better at filtering out misinformation, bad actors will continue to connive to put out false information, with the goal of causing maximum disruption to the election process. Some easy questions to ask yourself when trying to sort bad information from the good are:
- Is the account sharing the information verified with a blue check mark?
- Does the account have more than a few followers?
- Is the headline or the post grammatically correct? Is the date easy to find? Is it recent?
- If the post shares a link, does the content in the link match the context? Does the headline match the first paragraph, or lead? Are verifiable sources quoted in the story?
The more false or misleading information goes viral and gets shared by trusted accounts, the easier it is to get tricked. That's why Monaghan said you should always verify information you read on social media via fact-checking websites like PolitiFact or Snopes, or by looking to see if large, reliable news organizations like those mentioned above are reporting the same information.
IU's Observatory on Social Media also offers tools that help citizens spot misinformation online. Botometer checks the activity of a Twitter account and gives it a score to assess how likely it is to be a bot. BotSlayer scans social media in real time to detect evidence of automated Twitter accounts -- or "bots" -- pushing messages in a coordinated manner. The observatory has developed a version already set up to track election-related Twitter activity.
The observatory has also been tracking widely circulated controversial narratives throughout the 2020 election to assess the public's awareness of them, the extent to which they are believed and whether someone's political leaning is related to their vulnerability to these narratives.
Monaghan said the threat of the spread of online misinformation drives home how vital good journalism is to a healthy democracy. She made a plea to everyone to subscribe to reliable news sources as much as possible and to devote their clicks and time to places focused on getting quality, reliable information out to the public.
"The role of a journalist is increasingly that of an authenticator, a verifier, an interpreter and an explainer," she said "Reporters are people who take great personal risks to tell you what the heck is really going on. We need them now more than ever."