Journalistic Sloppiness

oltmanns Blog August 30, 2013

Let’s review the facts.

Bill Peduto won the Democratic primary race for mayor of the City of Pittsburgh.  He will now run against Republican candidate Josh Wander and Independent candidate Lester Ludwig in the general election in November and the winner of that election will be sworn in as mayor in January.


But more important than what Mr. Peduto is, let’s make clear what he is not – he is not the next mayor of Pittsburgh, as so many in the media here have said repeatedly.  And you know who you are.

Allowing this kind of journalistic shorthand to go uncorrected is well beyond inaccurate.  It’s sloppy.  It’s unprofessional.  And it’s a slap in the face to the voters of Pittsburgh – Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike.  Taken a step further, Mr. Peduto also has an obligation as the reported front-runner in this election to correct this inaccuracy whenever he is introduced as such.

Now in the spirit of full disclosure, I not a resident of the City of Pittsburgh and consequently will not be eligible to vote in the Pittsburgh mayoral election.  I have routinely voted for candidates from both major political parties over the past 35 years.  I don’t know Mr. Peduto, Mr. Wander or Mr. Ludwig and therefore have no horse in this race.

But I can only imagine how Wander and Lustig must feel as sincere and well-meaning candidates for public office when they see their opponent anointed as the winner by the media months before the election even takes place.  They’re entitled to at least some measure of basic fairness and accuracy in reporting if the voters are to be well served.

And it’s not like this is a technicality. There are reasons why the media should take greater care with the facts and not get caught up in the popularity of an election.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan was swept into office as president in a landslide victory over incumbent President Jimmy Carter.  As the polls closed in the eastern part of the country, Reagan’s victory looked certain, at least to the network pundits working in prime time in the eastern time zones, who were working off exit polls.  One by one, they called 44 states in favor of Reagan in a landslide 10-1 Electoral College victory until finally, NBC News projected Reagan the winner and the next president of the United States.

The time was 8:15 p.m. EST.

The polls would still be open for another three hours in at least a dozen western states, including several major electoral states.  But since the networks had already called it, there was little point in standing in line at the end of a long work day to vote.  Millions of voters simply didn’t bother and stayed home.

A firestorm of controversy erupted over calling elections before the voters had spoken.  Congress even threatened new legislation prohibiting the practice.  And let’s not forget the disaster that ensued in calling the 2000 presidential race before all the votes were cast and counted.  So for these reasons, most reputable news organizations now greater restraint in calling elections, local or national, until the polls have closed.

Mr. Peduto won the Democratic primary with approximately 23,500 votes.  According to the Pennsylvania Department of State, there are 164,741 Democrats, 30,502 Republicans, and thousands more Independents registered to vote in the City of Pittsburgh.  When talk show hosts refer to Mr. Peduto as “the next mayor of Pittsburgh,” they’re ignoring the right and will of all of those voters to cast their vote and make their voices heard.

Elections are an American birthright that are supposed to ensure that the people decide who their leaders will be, and every vote counts.  Mr. Peduto is a nice enough guy, but at the moment, that’s all he is.  It’s insulting to hear him described as the next mayor (presumptive or otherwise) by the media until the polls have closed on Election Night in Pittsburgh.

In journalism, it’s important to be first, but it’s essential to be right.  The former is driven by competition, but the latter is what defines your reputation.  Most of the journalists I know live and die by the accuracy of the stories they report, right down to the smallest detail.   Media shorthand, time or space constraints, or even personal political allegiances are no excuse for allowing such a transgression of voters rights to occur.

Bill Peduto is the Democratic candidate for mayor of Pittsburgh.  He will not be “the next mayor of Pittsburgh” unless the people of Pittsburgh vote that way on November 5.



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