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Media rechecking their crystal balls

Bad predictions about the Florida vote have journalists and critics asking pointed questions.

By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 9, 2000


What happened?

That's the question news organizations locally and nationally were struggling to answer Wednesday after two separate victory projections proved premature in a presidential election that remains too close to call.

For TV networks hoping to build a reputation by correctly calling a historically close election, the mistakes were devastating: First, a prediction just before 8 p.m. Tuesday that Vice President Al Gore would take Florida's 25 electoral votes. That was rescinded two hours later.

Then came forecasts just after 2 a.m. that rival George W. Bush would take the state after all, a prediction that also was retracted two hours later.

Did the desire to be first goad the TV networks into premature projections that other media outlets -- except the Associated Press -- followed?

The TV networks, of course, say no, blaming their first mistake on errant polling information and the second mistake on an unexpected flood of Gore votes that came after 95 percent of the state's votes were counted.

"It seemed there was no way Gore could make up the difference, and all of a sudden the data went haywire," said Barbara Levin, spokeswoman for NBC News, repeating an explanation offered by CBS and Fox. "The pressure was to be accurate, not first."

CNN issued a statement that "because of the problems ... CNN has initiated an immedite review of all procedures involved."

An official at ABC blamed both errors on Voter News Service, a consortium of media outlets that conducts exit polling and vote counts behind the networks' election night predictions.

"The data is only as good as who is inputting it or collecting it," said Jeffrey Schnieder, spokesman for ABC News. Some questioned the timing of the TV predictions, noting that Fox News Channel, which was presenting election result on the Fox network the first time, made the call for Bush first, at 2:16 a.m. Within minutes, ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC had followed suit, despite the earlier error for Gore.

Critics Wednesday suggested TV networks could wait until polls close nationwide before projecting winners, or VNS could wait until polls close in a state before providing information to networks.

But Al Tompkins, a broadcast news expert at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which holds a controlling interest in Times Publishing Co., predicted viewers would still flock to the channel with the fastest results.

"We live in an information society that wants data quickly," Tompkins said. "Perhaps we don't reveal adequately to viewers that these are just estimates."

Newspapers made the same mistakes as the TV networks, with a Bush victory declared in headlines at the Miami Herald, Atlanta Journal Constitution and New York Post. Some enterprising readers sold copies of papers with incorrect headlines on eBay, an Internet auction site.

Editors at the Tampa Tribune decided at 2:30 a.m. to stop the presses and replace their lead headline "Too Close To Call" with the proclamation "Florida Elects Bush," a mistake that appeared on 150,000 copies.

At 6 a.m., the Tribune printed 20,000 copies of a final edition headlined "Recount."

Similarly, St. Petersburg Times editors started by proclaiming a "Photo Finish" at midnight, revising it to "Florida Finish" at 1:15 a.m. and then announcing "Bush Wins" at 2:20 a.m. -- a mistake that appeared on 110,000 copies. An Extra edition finalized at 5 a.m. bore the "Recount" headline and a revised main story.

Editors at both papers denied undue influence from TV stations, saying that Gore's apparent move to concede and a sizable Bush lead with 95 percent of the vote counted in Florida affected their choice.

"We were reacting quite appropriately to the information that was in our hands," said Gil Thelen, executive editor of the Tampa Tribune.

Paul Tash, editor and president of the Times, couldn't say for sure if he'd make a different decision in the future.

"We wanted to tell readers what we knew as soon as we knew it," Tash added. "I still think the headline "Bush Wins' might hold up."

Local network TV affiliates said they followed their network's lead in airing the predictions. NBC's reports on WFLA-Ch. 8 emerged as the highest-rated locally during much of prime time and late night election coverage, followed by WTSP-Ch. 10, WFTS-Ch. 28 and WTVT-Ch. 13.

"This causes me to question how we call races," said Jim Church, news director at CBS affiliate WTSP, who noticed irregularities between exit polling data and actual vote totals soon after the networks first called a Gore victory in Florida. "We make projections based on about 1,700 voters out of 6-million (in Florida). Is that sample really big enough?"

Tompkins predicted TV outlets could be rewarded for their mistakes, as viewers remain glued to news broadcasts trying to sort out what went wrong.

"Usually, one of the worst times (for viewership) is after Election Day ... because everyone is so weary," he said. "This . . . is almost like a perverse reward for getting it wrong."


-- Times staff writer Scott Barancik contributed to this report, which used information from Times wires.

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