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Why TV Media Should Abandon ‘Election Night’

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The 2016 election coverage felt like a wake, as America readied itself for four years under Donald Trump. But, that’s just how the majority of Americans felt. Despite that sentiment, the TV media was still electrifying in its coverage. At first, they were cheering on the chance of a woman becoming the US President for the first time. Then, there was despair over Donald Trump’s victory in mainstream TV Media. In the 2020 US Elections, Election Night coverage was a bit soberer than before. But, it had a lot of other issues. And now, calls are coming for TV media to finally abandon Election Night.

How news channels cover Election Night

Late-night election specials on mainstream TV media have been a tradition ever since the 2008 Obama-McCain election. And the coverage especially peaked during that and Trump’s 2016 election. The media branded both of these results as the most special in the history of the United States. By the time the Obama election coverage began, the results were pretty much confirmed. And results were tilting in Trump’s direction from the start in 2016 as well. But, that was not the case in the 2020 US Elections.

In 2020, every person in America expected delayed results. But, that was no hindrance to coverage on TV media. Mainstream media covered non-stop election night for 3 whole days. And that was the case with almost every channel, not just Fox and CNN. It is as if the news is trying to fill vacuums of airtime. And it wasn’t over with the elections as well. Afterward, new channels kept airing results which didn’t even matter. And now, there are calls for TV media to abandon coverage of Election Night in the US, once and for all. That is what Emily VanDerWerff thinks over at Vox.

How Election Night coverage came into existence?

Why TV Media Should Abandon 'Election Night'
Wikimedia Commons

Delayed results were expected for months in this year’s election. But, the pundits and commentators brought it up again and again as if it was an anomaly when it was the norm not so long ago. TV media only called two results in recent history before midnight. They were 2008 and 2012. The infamous George Bush & Al Gore election in 2000 went on for over a month. And TV media had a fair reason to cover that, because of the legal battle between the two campaigns.

Now, in defense of TV media and Election Night coverage, back before Ronald Raegan was in charge of the White House, landslide elections were reasonably common. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Raegan himself won landslide elections. That was mainly due to less polarization in society. However, after the Civil Rights movement and the Raegan administration, electoral maps became divided particularly on racial lines. As a result, elections got dragged and the concept of Election Night emerged on mainstream TV media.

However, the proceedings in these elections were nothing out of the ordinary. If we’re being honest, Bernie Sanders even predicted the result and the associated meltdown down to last states! In an old interview with Jimmy Fallon that went viral, Bernie knew the exact states where the results would be delayed and predicted how Donald Trump would use it to call the elections a fraud. But, it still seemed like TV media was the only one who wasn’t expecting it.

Why should TV media abandon it?

What we saw on mainstream TV channels was a meltdown, as if no one knew what was going to happen. The initial panic of Trump leading in the battleground states and winning Florida early was followed by Joe Biden‘s turnaround and the ecstasy of his victory by liberal TV media outlets. From Wednesday till Saturday, TV media was focused too much on drips of information coming from the polling booths, with even the slightest and insignificant jump being reported with unwarranted sensationalism. And that was happening, despite the fact that since Wednesday, the trajectory of the election was headed only towards one direction – a Joe Biden win.

And then, there’s a constant narrative on television that each successive election is the most important in our lifetimes. Now, you can say that about 2020, to some extent. However, this narrative has undervalued actually important news. It’s too much sensationalization and it obscures the actual information that people need to hear – actual information that impacts their life.

TV media kept giving battleground states a leaning before even substantial votes came in. It seems nonsensical to give a state a leaning when hardly 30% of the votes are in. It’s only a tool to sensationalize news on Election Night, giving viewers of one side anxiety and relief to the other, when both such feelings are unnecessary so early in an election.

TV media does need to assess which information merits coverage and should be considered “Breaking News”. They need to assess which information deserves the airtime that can change people’s lives in a meaningful way. It is only under exemplary circumstances when constant media coverage makes sense. That includes the September 11 attacks and the John F. Kennedy Assassination.

What can the government do?

Luckily, there are other countries that have opted for a better model than the United States. For instance, in the UK, their law bans coverage of the Elections when the polls are open. In fact, they have very strict regulations and even international TV news media outlets can’t cover or analyze the elections and present any kind of content that can influence the voter’s mind on election day. And that’s just one of many countries who have regulations on coverage of elections or even campaigning regulations. That’s something that the US can invaluably learn from them to make their election nights better, which is just one of the many flaws the electoral system of the country has.

You can read the full Vox piece over here.

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