How some cable news networks helped clear the way for Trump’s false declaration of victory

I love the PBS Newshour. I watch it religiously, so of course I was livestreaming their election night special coverage on YouTube. In many ways, its coverage of election night was great — true to character, Judy Woodruff refused to give into the anxiety that characterizes other TV news programs, historians and other experts provided much-needed context, and the host and correspondents cautioned viewers throughout the night that it would be a while before we knew the election’s outcome.

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But, like other networks, the Newshour created the false impression that Trump was winning the election by repeatedly checking in on battleground states the Associated Press had not yet declared without sufficiently emphasizing that the early results were skewed. Not only did we need to wait for more votes in these states to be counted, as the journalists said, but we also had to wait specifically for mail-in votes to be tallied. To a viewer who didn’t understand that election night returns would generally favor Trump and mail-in ballots would generally favor Biden, it appeared that Trump was winning elections in battleground states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania when he actually wasn’t. Many news outlets prepared their readers for this possibility, but most people tuning in on election night probably hadn’t been keeping up with that coverage. 

On election night, networks should’ve thoroughly explained ballot counting procedures, mail-in ballot security measures and why some state laws prevented mail-in ballots from being counted earlier. Rather than discussing meaningless polls, they should’ve considered election night an opportunity to not only state that there is virtually no evidence of voter fraud, which they did, but also thoroughly explain what precautions are taken to prevent voter fraud and how the government makes sure that dead people can’t vote. When ordinary people don’t understand these admittedly complicated issues, it’s possible for leaders to exploit that knowledge gap for their own political purposes.

And because networks flashed developing battleground state results without sufficiently explaining to viewers why it seemed like Trump was winning, we should not be entirely surprised that so many viewers later proved so confused; it’s understandable that Trump supporters would be skeptical about a post-Election Day surge in Biden votes if they weren’t entirely familiar with how mail-in voting and vote-counting worked. While news media can’t be blamed for the president’s lies, people’s lack of knowledge about how mail-in ballot counting would work cleared the way for Trump to prematurely declare victory and make the false claim that states were “finding” ballots out of nowhere. The lack of information also made the president’s supporters even more receptive to his baseless attacks on the press, which he’s suggested make up the results, even though the press just gathers information from local government sources. Meanwhile, those who stood to lose the most from another four years of Trump went to bed Tuesday night with the false impression that he was winning.

After the president’s election night speech, journalists began explaining that the ballots were not being “found” but had actually been in storage waiting for the day election officials could legally begin counting them. As I watched the president’s Thursday evening press conference, a little box on the PBS Newshour screen warned viewers that the AP had not yet declared a winner. The title of the YouTube livestream said “WATCH LIVE: Trump makes false claims about continuing vote count,” and a New York Times headline called his false claim a “lie,” something newsrooms have been hesitant to do. Some networks straight-up stopped airing the president’s conference. But all of this responsible fact-checking came too late: at this point, people were already riled up and much less likely to be swayed by facts.

This need to share results for states that had not yet been called speaks to a larger problem in an age of instant gratification: newsrooms want to get information out to their readers as quickly as possible, even if that information is misleading. As Trump mounts his legal battle on the election, journalists must make sure their audiences understand the rules for recounts, observers and ballot counting lest anyone try to undermine them.

Lauren Hakimi is a student at CUNY Hunter College, where she studies history and English literature and edits the school news website, The Envoy. This piece was edited by Gabe Schneider. Copy editing by Daniel Fernandez. Image sourced from PBS Newshour.

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