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February 2001

November 13, 2000
Five Simple Reforms

First, the networks gave Florida to Al Gore, then to George W. Bush, and then, of course, to "too close to call." Obviously, something went wrong.

What can networks do differently next time, both to avoid confusing the voters, and embarrassing themselves? Brill's Content has drafted five simple reforms consisting of guidelines which, had they been in place during this election, could have helped prevent some of the election-night chaos. We sent a questionnaire (below) to the news chiefs of: ABC (David Westin), CBS (Andrew Heyward), CNN (Tom Johnson), Fox News (Roger Ailes), MSNBC and NBC (Andrew Lack); and to network producers, correspondents and anchors. Read about their responses in the special election section of the February Brill's Content, on newsstands January 12.

1. During election day, including the evening of election coverage, we will not make any projections, including those based on exit polls, about the results in any voting jurisdiction where any polling places are still open to voters.
YES_____ NO_____

2. During our election night coverage (and later, if relevant), we will not declare anyone the winner or loser in any jurisdiction even after the polls have closed until we receive what we believe to be reliable information regarding an actual count of enough actual ballots necessary to make a result mathematically certain. If we refer to exit polls or analysis of partial returns to report on how we believe the candidates are doing, we will use qualifying language that explicitly says that this is a "prediction" and that conveys that the actual results may turn out differently. Specifically, in these circumstances we will never "declare" a winner or "project" a winner. Rather, we might say something like: "[Name of news organization] predicts, based on exit polling [or results tabulated thus far], that Smith will be the winner in Florida, but we do not yet know the actual result."
YES_____ NO_____

3. In order to be in compliance with the pledge always to use qualifying language in referring to "predictions," we will make all best efforts to assure that any voice-over or text headlines, bumpers, and captions do not use language that is more declarative than it should be.
YES_____ NO_____

4. In order to assure that our reporting -- and, in particular, our predictions -- are subject to comparison to the predictions of other news organizations, during the campaign season and on election night we will not combine any of our polling efforts with those of any other non-affiliated national television news organization.
YES_____ NO_____

5. Until the actual results have actually been counted, we will not during our coverage feature analysts or other employees of our news organization whose comments imply that the result is already final. In other words, we will not have someone on-air to explain a result that has not already happened.
YES_____ NO_____

What are your thoughts on this proposal? , or discuss the issues with other readers on our new message boards.
Read the letter that accompanied the questionnaire.



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