Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Reporting the Presidential Race

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Reporting the Presidential Race

Article excerpt

A PRESS CHALLENGED

Coverage of 'Bush v. Gore' before the U.S. Supreme Court makes strong case for continuing education of journalists

If you were tuned in to the major TV networks last Tuesday night, you saw the Achilles' heel of journalism: leading TV news reporters who didn't understand the story they were trying to report live.

It was a critical moment for journalism -- a moment that demanded authoritative reporting to explain a complex U.S. Supreme Court decision that would determine the outcome of the presidential race. Many journalists were not up to their task. From network to network, reporters and anchors stumbled in their interpretation of the court's decision, adding more confusion to the nation's uncertainty over the election.

The scenario reinforced once again the critical need for news organizations to invest in the education of their journalists.

The Supreme Court brought this story to a conclusion when it held that the method for recounting of votes in Florida violated the equal- protection provision of the U.S. Constitution. It held there was not enough time for the Florida Supreme Court to devise fairer standards to count ballots that could be implemented in time to meet a Dec. 12 deadline for Florida to choose its electors.

On a cold Washington night, reporters were camped out on the marble steps of the Supreme Court building waiting to hear the decision of the nation's highest legal body. Shortly after 9 p.m., court clerks began distributing the 65-page decision.

Millions of Americans watched their TV sets as network reporters attempted to quickly disclose the findings of the high court. Print journalists also were trying to digest the complex legal language for their organizations.

The job of dissecting this complex legal document was challenging for even the most experienced reporters. Roger Cossack, a lawyer and co- host of CNN's "Burden of Proof," and Charles Bierbauer, a CNN correspondent, were struggling with the legal language on the air. Several reporters erroneously reported that the Supreme Court had sent the case back to the Florida Supreme Court without mentioning that it had closed the door on any more recounts. One news service reportedly rushed out a bulletin reporting the same thing.

One reporter who shone in this difficult time was Dan Abrams, an attorney and legal reporter for NBC News. Tom Brokaw was careful to explore what the decision meant on live TV with Abrams and Pete Williams, an NBC reporter. Gregory Favre, vice president of news for the McClatchy Co., said the best thing for these reporters to do was to quickly look at the dissenting opinions in the case to understand the decision's impact. …

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