Newspapers shouldn’t gamble with facts

News is being circulated around about some embarrassing black eyes at the British press. (And really, when you think about British newspapers, it takes quite a doozie for a mistake to be considered newsworthy.) It seems that on the night of the New Hampshire presidential primary, the papers took pre-election opinion polls as gospel and wrote headlines as if Barack Obama had won it. In the end, he lost to Hillary Clinton.

The Independent, in its follow-up “apology”, throws out a litany of excuses (emphasis mine):

We could plead mitigating circumstances. The time difference works to the great disadvantage of the European and British press. Print deadlines gave us little choice but to trust the advance US polls. The unusually wide discrepancy between the exit polls and the actual vote became clear a good two hours after our final edition went to press. The exit polls were wrong; so was our gamble on Mr Obama.

At least this was only an early, if important, primary, and we were in the excellent company of most of the British press. It was hardly a howler like the Chicago Daily Tribune’s 1948 headline, declaring that Dewey had defeated Truman for the presidency. Nor was it a CBS moment – when in 2000 the U.S. network called Florida, and the presidency, for Gore.

But now technology means that newspapers don’t simply rely on print for the dissemination of news. Keep your eye on our website.

First of all, this is factually inaccurate. CBS never called the election for Gore. They, and many other media including Associated Press, called the state of Florida for Gore (after looking at exit polls for the peninsula but not the more conservative panhandle), but this was very early in the night. Western states were still voting, and nobody in their right mind would have called an election. They were talking about “momentum” and Bush’s declining chances, but that was about it.

The bad call on the election was later in the night, around 2am Eastern time, when the networks (starting with, of course, Fox News) called Florida for Bush. By that time, the other states were mostly decided, and that win put Bush over the top. An hour later they would find themselves having to eat crow again, calling the same state two different ways, both of them wrong.

I add this explanation not because I like to be nitpicky (though I do like to nitpick), but because if you’re giving a long explanation about how you screwed up an election call, you should probably get the facts in your excuses right.

Anyway, back to the excuses. Here they are again, paraphrased:

  1. It’s unfair for us because Western media have 5+ more hours than we do to get things right.
  2. Exit polls are usually right so we assumed they were.
  3. This primary wasn’t that important. Worse mistakes have been made.
  4. Everyone else made the same mistake.
  5. It’s ok if we screw up as long as we correct it on the website.

Do these sound like explanations a major respected news publication would give, or do they sound more like the excuses of a five-year-old who got caught doing something wrong?

Yeah, it sucks for British newspapers reporting on events in our hemisphere. They have to work into the wee hours of the morning, while we can take our time talking about them. It sucks that exit polls were so wrong in New Hampshire. It sucks that other media have called the race and you look like you’ve been scooped when you call it later.

Tough. That’s the business. It sucks for the sports editor when the big game of the evening has gone into quadruple overtime on the west coast, and they have to go to print without the final score. It sucks for the education reporter who won’t know until the morning whether schools are closed for the day. It sucks for the arts editor who has to rush a review of the evening concert into the paper at deadline (and the writer who has to leave the concert early to file). It sucks for every reporter who has to write the words “was to have” or “was expected to” because they can’t confirm that a planned activity has actually happened.

Working in the newspaper business means you have these problems, and you find ways to deal with them. You put in some filler for early editions, you write features instead of result stories. You write about what you know so far. You ask people to go online to find out how it ended. You make it clear in the paper that you don’t have the full story. People understand that.

When it comes to situations like election results, you have two choices at deadline: Be honest that you don’t know the result at press time, or gamble that the most likely answer is the correct one.

The British press chose the second option. And the disturbing thing is that it seems they’ll do it again the next time. Missing in the Independent’s excuse list is a vow not to do it again. Instead, they seem to imply that it wasn’t their fault, that this was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, an unforseeable reversal or a common unavoidable error that you should expect in journalism.

None of this is true. This was an entirely avoidable mistake, caused by a greedy desire to get an answer where none existed. You simply can’t call elections until votes are counted. The Brits chose to ignore that fact because it was inconvenient to them, and they have egg on their face as a result.

The Independent acknowledges that they gambled on the results. If this mistake has taught them anything, it’s that they shouldn’t gamble with the news, no matter how much the odds may be in their favour. Everyone will remember the one time they got it wrong.

UPDATE (Jan. 14): The Guardian’s self-important analysis points out that nobody would be stupid enough to try this with the outcomes of soccer matches, which are about as predictable.

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