Contacts: Gary Hill, Ethics Committee Co-chairman, 651/642-4437; Fred Brown, Ethics Committee Co-Chairman, 303/820-1663; Ray Marcano, SPJ president, 937/225-2323
INDIANAPOLIS - Many American media outlets acted hastily in their reporting on the results of the 2000 presidential election race, further damaging the credibility of journalists in the eye of the general public, says the Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Committee.
“Election night 2000 was another chance for the national media to reaffirm its central role in our democracy, and it was a chance for journalists to wrap themselves in glory, to regain some of their lost credibility, but it didn't turn out that way,” said Gary Hill, co-chairman of SPJ's Ethics Committee and director of Investigations for KSTP-TV in Minneapolis. “It didn't turn out that way because journalists and their institutions did not follow a central tenet of the SPJ code of ethics, 'Act independently.' ”
After Voter News Service projected that Vice President Al Gore would carry Florida, every VNS member - including Fox, ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and the Associated Press - followed suit.
“Not one news organization said its own research showed the race as too close to call,” Hill said. “When VNS realized its error, it moved Florida back into the neutral column. Now if each organization had made its own call, you would think at least one would have stuck to its guns. Instead all six had to retreat. If each member had exercised more independent judgment, and acted less from competitive pressure, the public would have been better served.”
When four of five VNS partners, led by Fox, called Florida for Gov. George W. Bush based on incomplete unofficial returns, the Associated Press and VNS were among the few news organizations to hold their ground, act independently and say the race was too close to call.
“Many newspapers rushed to press with 'Bush Wins' headlines,” Hill said.
“Were they basing this on their independent look at the returns, which were available on Web sites? It doesn't seem likely. Does attributing it to 'network reports' get them off the hook? Not a very comfortable argument to make. If such reports were based on network calls, a headline or subhead should have said so.”
Hill said Fox's decision to allow John Ellis, Bush's cousin, to make Fox the first network to call Florida for Bush sent Election Night's news coverage into a tailspin. It set off another stampede that spurred Gore to concede to Bush and almost concede publicly.
“Now it's time to look to another part of our ethics code for guidance, the part that says 'Be Accountable,' ” Hill said. “What will Fox do to address its obvious gaffe, and what will it do in terms of future hiring practices? CBS, ABC and CNN have announced they will undertake a self-examination to figure out what went wrong. Hopefully the efforts will be thorough and the results shared with everyone.”