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Newsroom Leaders Discuss 2020 Election at Lecture Co-Hosted by Institute of Politics, Shorenstein Center

The Institute of Politics and Shorenstein Center at Harvard Kennedy School co-hosted an event on media coverage of the 2020 election.
The Institute of Politics and Shorenstein Center at Harvard Kennedy School co-hosted an event on media coverage of the 2020 election. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Emmy M. Cho, Contributing Writer

National newsroom leaders discussed navigating 2020 election coverage in a lecture co-hosted by the Institute of Politics and Shorenstein Center Friday.

Speakers at the event included Brian Carovillano, Vice President and Managing Editor of the Associated Press, David Chalian, Vice President and Political Director of CNN, and Chuck Todd, Host of NBC News’s Meet the Press.

Moderated by Nancy Gibbs, Director of the Shorenstein Center and former Editor-in-Chief of TIME Magazine, the event began with a discussion on how the 2020 election will differ from 2016's contest, particularly given increases in mail-in voting and possible delays in the release of statewide results.

“The biggest thing is the disparity and when some votes get counted,” Todd said. “We could have upwards of 75 percent of the vote not even tabulated in places like Michigan, or Pennsylvania, by midnight on election night.”

The unprecedented nature of this year's election recurred throughout the lecture.

“States and localities are dealing with the counting of those ballots in ways they never have before,” Chalian said. “We're just dealing with such a massive influx of vote by mail absentee vote, and specifically the states Trump was talking about, that don't have a history of dealing with this.”

“In some places, it's just going to take a really long time for them to count,” he added. “And so also sort of being clear in these next 11 days, I think with, with our audiences, about, you know, the need for a little bit of patience here just because of what we're dealing with in the process of casting and counting ballots in a pandemic.”

The speakers also pointed out the differing voting patterns for Democrats and Republicans. Since voting began, more Democrats have participated in the mail-in ballot system, whereas more Trump supporters are planning to vote in-person, Chalian noted.

“Democrats are voting by mail and early and a lot of this is pandemic related, obviously, and the politicization of the pandemic that we've seen,” Chalian said. “Donald Trump supporters and Republicans are far more inclined to say that they are going to cast their ballots in person on election day. So when you have two totally different electorates, if you will, it's going to be this constant need on election night, to be transparent and explain to the audience at any given moment.”

The panelists shared concerns about the danger of releasing inaccurate voting information in order to build a compelling news story early. Gibbs described that pull as the “temptation towards the premature narrative.”

Carovillano argued that a strategy he calls “radical transparency” will be critical in maintaining truthful, real-time information dissemination about voting results.

“We are always conservative — moving more conservative than ever on this election day — when it comes to...calls,” he said. “The second part of that strategy is radical transparency, in terms of constantly explaining on the wire, in interviews live on election night, and to anyone who will listen to us, what we understand to be happening, why it's happening, and why it matters.”

Carovillano urged individuals to maintain a skeptical attitude toward people delegitimizing election analytics because they are released later than in previous presidential election cycles.

“I hope people are starting to understand that there will be people claiming that delays equal fraud, problems, and election malfeasance,” he said. “There is no equation between those two things.”

Todd said social media often advances the idea that whichever news source calls the election first is at an advantage.

“The fact that people have gotten drunk on social media has sobered up American journalists,” he said. “We all have gotten to be a bit more careful in how we debunk misinformation so that it isn't accidentally spreading it.”

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