At a time when uncertainty may be the election’s only immediate result, Americans have an opportunity to rethink the way stories are told.
Earlier this week, a striking thing happened at the Supreme Court: A justice inserted several errors into the record. The mistakes came as the Court was making last-minute decisions about the precise time span of an election that has been taking place for weeks. The errors were products, as The New York Times put it, of “the court’s fast pace in handling recent challenges to voting rules.” They also emphasized the extent to which the election is being waged through proxy campaigns—through battles that treat voting not just as the voice of the public, but also as a matter of logistics. How will votes be processed? How will they be, right out in the open, suppressed? When will they stop being counted?
And when will this election, technically, end?
News organizations will help answer that last question. That is in part because, as the New York Times columnist Ben Smith wrote in August, “the American media plays a bizarrely outsize role in American elections, occupying the place of most countries’ national election commissions.” As local election boards process ballots and report the results, news outlets—TV news outlets, in particular—will make projections. They will make announcements. And they will be contending with a mess of complications that include, this year, an incumbent president who has made no secret of his desire to sow chaos and confusion. The responsibility held by media organizations, in this context, will be immense: They will need to not only inform their viewers, but also orient them. And explain vote-tabulation processes to people who may not be familiar with them. And debunk—or strategically ignore—any misinformation that is churned out into the mix.