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CNN announces election night coverage change, following 'debacle'

February 2, 2001
Web posted at: 5:25 p.m. EST (2225 GMT)

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- CNN Friday announced widespread changes in election coverage, saying it will no longer rely on exit polls for projections in close races, will install a key precinct cross-check reporting system and will not call races in states before all polls are closed in those states.


"These new policies are designed to address the mistakes which occurred on Election Day and to deliver fair, accurate and responsible election reporting that has always been CNN's standard," CNN said.

The changes came after a sweeping independent investigation, commissioned by CNN, examined how CNN handled election night 2000, one of the closest elections in U.S. history.

"The final judgment of news quality is that CNN's election night coverage was a debacle," the report concludes.

"In its coverage of the 2000 presidential election, television put too high a premium on timeliness and competition, to the detriment of accurate and responsible reporting of election night returns," it says.

"We conclude that (CNN officials) failed on their core assignment on election night to accurately inform the public concerning the outcome of the election."

The report, by a three-person panel that includes a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, examined CNN's election night coverage as a whole, as well as that of the Voter News Service (VNS), the organization that provided election day polling and voting data to the networks and the Associated Press.

The panel includes James Risser, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and former director of the Knight Fellowship program at Stanford University; Joan Konner, former dean and current professor of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism; and Ben Wattenberg, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

The report takes VNS to task for not being "nearly sophisticated enough" and sharply criticizes CNN for not using better news judgment in evaluating the VNS returns.

"CNN was somewhat of a victim of a system, albeit one in which it fully participates," the report says. "Polls are statistical calculations, not factual realities. They are imperfect measures of voter intent and actual voting, especially in very close elections."

On election night, November 7, CNN, along with the other networks, first called the state of Florida for Democrat Al Gore, only to later retract that prediction. That projection was made at a time when polls had yet to close in the state's Panhandle, which is in the Central time zone.

In the early morning hours after election night, with the election outcomes still in doubt, CNN and the other networks called the state of Florida for Republican George W. Bush -- a projection that said Bush was the new president and resulted in wild celebrations at Bush headquarters in Austin, Texas. The networks then retracted that call.

Based partly on the findings of the report, CNN plans to implement widespread changes in its future election night coverage.

  • CNN will not use exit polls for projections in close races.

  • CNN will not project a winner in a state, even if it is reported that all the outstanding ballots have been accounted for, if the balloting shows that there is less than a 1 percent margin.

  • CNN will no longer project the winner in a state until all the polls are closed within that state.

  • CNN will remain with VNS "if, and only if, significant changes are made to assure that the errors that plagued election night coverage in 2000 do not recur."

  • CNN also will fund a sample key precinct vote reporting system in the states expected to have the closest races to ensure the network has as a second source of data to crosscheck against VNS data.

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