Election results sent a message to media as well

Election night 2006 will go into history books as a triumph for Democrats and rebuke to President Bush. It was a watershed evening for the news media, too.

The first smoothly run election night of the Internet era left many news organizations unsure of where they stood and should prompt some rethinking in time for 2008, according to a detailed new report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The journalism think tank monitored several forms of media that night and concluded the best place to follow the story was on Web sites run by television networks — as opposed to the networks themselves.

Because of the richly detailed Web sites, fed by both results and exit poll data gathered by the networks and The Associated Press, Internet browsers frequently were more up-to-date than the anchors and pundits on the air, said Tom Rosenstiel, the project’s director.

CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC offered wall-to-wall coverage on TV that night. To a large extent, the networks — particularly CNN — see elections as an opportunity to show off their biggest names, but the slow pace of results this year frequently left them with little to say or do, Rosenstiel said.

"Showcasing talent may not always be the best way of telling the story," he said.

The cable networks should spend less time on pointless talk and more time with reporters, and could even supplement coverage during quieter times with prepared reports on the personalities and issues, he said.

"If they wanted to tell the story of the election rather than put on a live television show, they could have had a much richer profile," he said.

That’s unlikely, since when a prepared report appears "you’re going to say to yourself, `I’m going to go to the other channel and find out what’s going on,’" said Bill Wheatley, a former NBC News executive who produced three separate election nights for the network.

CBS and NBC spent an hour of prime-time on the election, 90 minutes on ABC. The compressed time and smaller news staffs made anchors Katie Couric on CBS, Charles Gibson on ABC and Brian Williams on NBC even more central to their broadcasts, the project’s report said.

"Their shows didn’t really differ that much from what you could see on cable," Rosenstiel said. "They differed in length."

Broadcasters have frequently been criticized for cutting back on time spent on the air during some elections and political conventions. With the cable networks taking those hours, broadcasters might be better served trying to reach the nonpolitical junkies on election night by focusing on personalities and broad themes, he said.

"Even for the political junkies, sometimes the information is only part of it," Wheatley said. "They do want to get the analysis. They do want to hear what Tim Russert says." But keeping a broader perspective might be wise, he said.

"Every election night is different," said Wheatley, who has done some consulting work for the AP since retiring from NBC, although not on election coverage. "The most important thing is who is winning and what does it mean. … You have the resources to change on a dime."

Wheatley wonders whether all networks might soon entice people by video streaming coverage online, on the same site where viewers would also be able to search for results that interest them.

The network Web sites did so well this year presumably because they are run by news organizations accustomed to getting information out quickly, the project’s report said.

And, said Rosentiel, "It may not be very long before we say, `Maybe I don’t even need to have the television on.’"

By contrast, his think tank was less impressed by aggregators such as Google Inc., Time Warner Inc.’s AOL and Yahoo Inc. Except for Yahoo, they lacked the judgment of human editors to avoid conflicting or confusing information getting out. Newspaper Web sites also appear to be in transition, he said. They have a strong tradition of narrative storytelling that isn’t necessarily suited to the pace of election night, he said.

CNN held a party election night for some of the Web’s most prominent bloggers. Good thing, because mingling and socializing was about all they really had to do. The bloggers serve best as sentinels when things are going wrong, and nothing much went wrong that night, Rosenstiel said.

For the news organizations, though, the best part of this year’s election was avoiding the embarrassment of blown calls or faulty exit poll results.

"That’s good," Wheatley said, "because it really was a dry run for 2008."


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David Bauder can be reached at dbauder"at"ap.org

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press