Election-Night Patience

Voter News Service is dead.

These were the folks whose flawed Florida exit polls helped prompt the networks to make their infamously premature election declarations in 2000. Last November, almost unbelievably, VNS was once again unable to provide its media clients with reliable information, forcing the networks and their local affiliates to fill time with an endless parade of punditry and backfill.

The six major news organizations that created VNS in an effort to share information and save money finally decided it was time to pull the plug.

The question, of course, is: So what? The networks have surely killed far more worthy projects for far lesser reasons. What kind of obit does VNS deserve? And more important, what, if anything should the networks do now?

That there will be some form of exit poll replacement seems clear. The networks are considering several proposals.

So what do viewers really want to know election night? The VNS calling card was providing data that allowed the networks to make their election "calls." Its inability to accurately do that caused its demise, but its predictive data were not really why the service was useful. In fact, most viewers could happily live with a little uncertainty on election night.

The useful data from VNS provided clues about why people voted the way they did. The exit poll demographics allowed us to understand whether a candidate was favored by younger voters, union members or those who attend church. It told us whether the people who voted for a particular candidate cared more about education or tax reform.

Election night may be the ultimate tally sheet, but the VNS data allowed members of the media to do more than just paint by numbers -- it enabled us to paint a far more vivid portrait of what was going on and why.

It is the need to "connect the dots" in politics that matters most, not only on election night but throughout our political coverage.

Though local television is typically, and often deservedly, bashed for how it covers campaigns, a number of stations did something quite surprising during 2001-02. They devoted time and resources to their coverage. And they did it in a way that made political stories interesting to viewers by showing the connection between what matters in people's lives and how government affects those concerns.

One station in the San Francisco-Oakland market focused on how the state's budget impasse might affect school class size, for example. A New York City station followed a young woman's desperate search for an apartment and paired it with what the mayoral candidates would do to provide affordable housing. Both stations remained ratings leaders even with their increased commitment to reporting politics, something long thought to be ratings poison.

The same phenomenon occurred with numerous other stations that followed a similar course. The point is, viewers may want more stories about why politics matter and fewer about who's going to win.

That same logic may apply to what viewers want election night and what the networks should try to provide.

Yes, VNS is dead, and there will be no rhetorical rejoinder, "Long live VNS." But VNS could have one useful legacy: to remind us that what we need in our political coverage is more about the "who, what and why" and less about the "when."

As the networks try to figure out how to replace VNS, no doubt much of the focus will be on how to get reliable numbers in order to make election night projections of winners and losers. But the focus also should be placed on a service that will tell us more about substance and less about speed.

In fact, to paraphrase an old wine commercial, the guiding principle for whatever replaces VNS should be: "We will tell no news before its time."


David Iverson is director of Best Practices in Journalism, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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