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Election Coverage Re-Examined

After a five-week review of their own election-night coverage, CBS executives said they plan over a dozen changes, including greater disclosure of how projections are made and a re-examination of the network’s dependence on the Voter News Service, a consortium of news organizations formed to make election-night projections.

In a shorter review of its election coverage, NBC said the consortium “needs improvement,” especially regarding exit polling and research.

Both networks said the desire to be first with election night calls should take a back seat to accuracy.

“Being right, not first, is what matters,” NBC’s summary said.

Election night broadcasts were riddled with errors, as faulty numbers and itchy trigger fingers led to misfires on the election result in Florida.

The networks gave the state’s 25 electoral votes to Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic presidential candidate, early in the night, but later switched the state — and, with it, the presidency — into GOP candidate George W. Bush’s column. As coverage stretched into the wee hours and the margin separating the candidates dipped into the hundreds, the networks finally deemed the state “too close to call.”

The dispute over the Florida vote dragged on for over a month, finally culminating in a U.S. Supreme Court decision in Bush’s favor.

Changes and explanations

All told, CBS’s 87-page report said the network would “learn from the mistakes made during this election” and “adopt new policies and procedures that will guard against similar mistakes being made in the future.”

From now on, CBS said, it will hold state projections until all the polls have closed in the state. In November, projections in Florida were made while polls in the state’s panhandle were still open.

The network also said it would use higher standards for certainty before calling close races, and would take a hard look at how to fix the problems with Voter News Service.

The CBS report was the first detailed examination of the election night mishaps, but it was not enough for Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House Commerce Committee’s telecommunications panel, named this week to head the full committee.

“The report may have satisfied the brass at CBS, but we still have a lot of unanswered questions,” Ken Johnson, a spokesman for Tauzin, told The Chicago Tribune.

ABC News said in November it plans a similar set of changes, while Fox News said it would not renew its contract with VNS pending an explanation from the projection service.

Executives from the networks are scheduled to appear before a House telecommunications panel to explain the election night situation at a hearing next month.

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