Journalists Should Tread Lightly When Projecting Election Results

(Photo Adapted From Flickr Creative Commons/Maltri)

(Photo Adapted From Flickr Creative Commons/Maltri)

Americans will receive up-to-the-minute data on Election Day through a partnership between Slate and data startup VoteCastr. Journalists and news organizations should be cautious about reporting certain information that may influence voters on Election Day, however.

Journalists are meant to influence people’s decisions through the reporting of accurate information. Whether a person is buying a car or voting for the next president, members of the public use information provided by journalists to make their decisions.

The relationship between journalists and the public is a foundational element of democracy.  Part of that relationship requires journalists to know when to give the public space. The space typically occurs on Election Day.

Journalists and news organizations closely follow voting projections and results, but are careful not to make any announcements that might interfere with the actual results of races. The projected winners of elections are traditionally not called by news organizations until a state’s polls are closed.

A partnership between Slate and VoteCastr is challenging that tradition by providing up-to-the-minute voting data from around the country on Election Day.

“Votecastr plans to fill that gap with turnout data — not exit polls — it collects on its own, from key polling places across the country, and will meld it with pre-election polling it has done, and then project a current vote total for specific races and geographies,” according to Recode’s Peter Kafka.

One of the main concerns is that these types of projections may suppress voter turnout. For example, people who are told Hillary Clinton is far behind Donald Trump in Pennsylvania may decide to stay home. Or, people told Donald Trump is far behind Hillary Clinton in Florida may decide to stay home.

Plus, the totals published by Slate – and apparently streaming on Vice News – will be only projections for Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Votecastr will not have access or know what votes were actually cast in each of those states. In other words, it will be an educated guess. Those projections and educated guesses may be wrong.

“The role of journalists is to bring information to people, not to protect them from it,” wrote Julia Turner, editor-in-chief of Slate, on September 10. “But on Election Day, media outlets usually take the opposite approach.”

Turner’s stance is cavalier. One of the main functions of journalism is to decide what information and data is and is not vital to the public. The indiscriminate publishing of information – as exemplified by WikiLeaks – can cause very real harm to people and national security.

The Society of Professional JournalistsCode of Ethics says journalists should “recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.” In other words, journalists shouldn’t publish information for the sake of publishing information.

The concern that early projections will decrease or suppress voter turnout is a hunch, according to Turner. “Academics examining the question have found no consistent effects on voter behavior,” she wrote.

There is evidence that media projections do have a “small yet significant effect in decreasing turnout” once researchers account for voter- and election-specific variables. Most social science papers examining media projections on voter turnout call the possible suppression the “West Coast effect” since voting ends much later in states like California and Washington. Research suggests this effect may be particularly important when races are close.

National polls currently show the U.S. presidential candidates from the two main political parties separated by 1 to 6 percentage points. While Slate and VoteCastr may not have the weight to change tomorrow’s election results, other journalists and news organizations should be hesitant to follow their paths.

Traditions frequently need to be reexamined, but sometime there are justifiable reasons and purposes behind those habits and actions.

Journalists and news organizations should hope everyday Americans vote based on the truthful stories and reports they published during the past two years about the candidates and their platforms – not mid-day projections.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the SPJ Ethics Committee.

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