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Editorial: VNS blows its chance to atone

Nov 11, 2002  •  Post A Comment

What on earth has happened to election coverage on television? The networks used to be pretty good at it, pulling off marathon election nights with barely a hitch. With improvements in technology, coverage was supposed to get better, not worse.
But back-to-back screw-ups in two major national elections have damaged the credibility of TV news, which runs the risk of doing further harm if it fails to turn things around.
Voter News Service, the exit-polling consortium funded by ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CNN and the Associated Press, was full of humility and promises after the meltdown of 2000. The agency was red-faced over blowing the call in Florida, and the networks and other news agencies were eager to talk about reform, vowing to take decisive steps to prevent a repeat performance.
So much for promises. The question of whether VNS ever got around to cleaning up its act was answered conclusively on Election Day 2002 when VNS backed out at the last minute on its commitment to provide detailed exit-polling data to the news outlets. The service apparently could not get its computer to analyze the data properly-even though analyzing data is pretty much its only job-and decided to err on the side of caution and simply hold back the data.
Why it took until the afternoon of the national election to figure this out remains a mystery. But it’s a good bet that at least part of the problem stems from the news outlets’ shoestring approach to Voter News Service-an approach that has remained in place despite the hard lessons of the 2000 election.
The news divisions want good data, but especially in tough economic times, their corporate parents are reluctant to pay for it. That was the idea behind forming VNS in the first place: Share the financial burden by putting one service in place to handle all the exit polls. It’s a nice idea, but it can only work if that service is up to the challenge. And it is becoming increasingly evident that VNS is not.
Good data costs money, and it should be clear by now to the networks and other news outlets that aspire to cover this nation’s elections that they will have to bite the bullet and open their pocketbooks to give Voter News Service the resources it needs to do its job. Equally important, they should waste no time finding a second polling service that can back up VNS. The need for a second opinion became obvious during the chaos of the 2000 election. It should have been a done deal by 2002.
Instead, VNS and the news outlets allowed a valuable opportunity to slip away last week. The next chance to test the system under the real-time conditions of a large-scale election will come during the 2004 presidential election. The pressure will be on. TV news can’t afford another major flub.
The 2002 election glitch, coming on the heels of the 2000 fiasco, should provide a wakeup call: The news divisions must get their act together or risk further erosion of their credibility, something that would ultimately be far more expensive than shelling out for decent polls.