NEW YORK – Time was, a television reporter assigned to “democracy issues” would have a quiet time on election night sets, occasionally popping up to talk about broken voting machines at a polling place or two.
That's not the case in 2022.
Between election deniers and threats to voting rights, news organizations have emphasized the beat. That will continue next Tuesday, with coverage plans for the midterms rounding into shape.
CBS News will have its first-ever “Democracy Desk” to look at those issues and how law enforcement is dealing with threats. NBC News' “Vote Watch Unit” is looking at election security and disinformation. ABC News has assigned the team of Dan Abrams, Pierre Thomas, Terry Moran and Kate Shaw to the topic.
News teams, mindful of public suspicion about journalists, also promise transparency in their own operations.
“Because there is an adamant disinformation campaign, there are efforts to sow chaos, one of the most important things we can do is stick to the facts,” said CBS anchor Norah O'Donnell.
Following a precedent set in the 2018 midterms, the broadcast networks will set aside their entire prime-time schedules to follow the action. CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC will have wall-to-wall coverage. There will be a wealth of online options for those whom one screen won't do.
Expect surprises. Close pre-election polls, with control of the House and Senate up for grabs, combined with the lingering question of whether any politician will take Donald Trump's example from 2020 and not accept the results, make the night potentially combustible.
“The stakes are high,” said David Chalian, CNN's political director. “The results of this will alter the course of Biden's presidency.”
ABC News is preparing for the possibility that answers to which party controls the House and Senate won't be known when the network's planned cut-off point of 2 a.m. Eastern is reached — and to extend that if necessary, said Marc Burstein, who's in charge of the coverage.
“There's just a lot of tight races,” said Martha MacCallum, who will co-anchor Fox News' coverage with Bret Baier. “As a reporter and anchor that makes it a lot more fun to cover. It's going to be a really exciting night in a lot of ways in terms of the drama that has already been built into this.”
Fox became a major part of the election night stories in 2018, when it declared long before its rivals that Democrats would control the House, and in 2020, when its first call of Arizona for Joe Biden infuriated Trump and his supporters.
After the fallout, one of Fox's decision desk executives retired and another was reassigned, soon to leave the network — even though Fox got it right.
As a result, Fox viewers will probably see a lot of Arnon Mishkin, who returns to lead the network's decision desk. Fox wants to bring viewers into the process as much as possible this year, so they can see the communication between the anchors, decision desk and producers, MacCallum said.
“We want people to understand how the calls are made,” she said. “We're definitely making an effort to open up that process so viewers can see for themselves.”
Networks won't say they'll be more cautious than usual in calling races, not wanting the implication they weren't careful enough in the past. Executives noted that news organizations didn't declare Biden the winner in 2020 until the Saturday after the election.
But transparency — showing with perhaps mind-numbing detail how voting is going in close races — was a byword.
“We care about being right,” said Carrie Budoff Brown, senior vice president of “Meet the Press” and executive in charge of NBC News' election coverage, “not necessarily being first.”
Burstein preached patience with so many local races. “We're not going to jump to any conclusions that it's a red wave or a blue wave,” he said.
The Associated Press, which has counted the nation's votes for more than a century, does not declare a winner in an individual race until it has determined that there is no scenario under which trailing candidates can close the gap — even if a candidate has declared victory or others have conceded.
One of Tuesday's biggest mysteries is whether any 2020 election deniers become 2022 election deniers.
“I can't control what a politician comes out and says about the election results,” Chalian said. “What is in our control is our ability to present the factual results to the viewer.”
CNN will have more reporters out in the states than it ever has for a midterm election, he said. Other networks echo him; CBS News is preparing to tap into the expertise and staffing of its local stations across the country. NBC News has assigned six reporters each to Georgia and Pennsylvania alone.
“Through it all, they are going to have to be nimble and cover whatever story that emerges,” Budoff Brown said.
NBC News’ coverage will be led by the team of Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie, Chuck Todd and Andrea Mitchell. David Muir anchors ABC’s coverage. CNN says its hosts include Jake Tapper, Anderson Cooper, Dana Bash and Don Lemon.
With the exit of news anchor Brian Williams, MSNBC's coverage will be led by three anchors who host opinion shows: Rachel Maddow, Joy Reid and Nicolle Wallace.
David Bauder is the media writer for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/dbauder