How to Deliver Winning Election Night News Coverage

A picture of election night coverage
Successful election night coverage means being able to report in a crowded, noisy party atmosphere without letting that affect your performance. Photo © Getty Images

Election night is a nail-biting time for politicians hoping to claim victory. It's also a make-or-break night for news organizations hoping to be first with results, reaction and analysis. For a journalist, winning election night news coverage means being aggressive, knowledgeable and savvy in the face of enormous deadline pressure.

Election night is unlike anything many reporters experience during the rest of the year.

As the 2000 presidential election showed, surprises are to be expected, even with months of planning for what will always be a hectic night. Develop the election night coverage skills you need to beat the competition.

Do Your Research to Interpret the Incoming Election Returns

In the months leading up to election night, critics often blast the media for offering only horse race coverage of the candidates. That is, just sticking to saying who's up and who's down and never taking the time to find out the real issues that matter most to voters.

That's sometimes a fair criticism. But on election night, the numbers are what's important, and you can offer interpretation to help your audience understand what is happening as the votes are counted.

Before starting election night coverage, know where the candidates are the strongest and weakest. In a presidential election, that means concentrating on key states.

But even if you're covering a race for mayor, there's bound to be a side of town where one candidate is strong and another is weak.

By having that critical information, you can report that a candidate who was expected to do poorly on the south side of the city did much better than expected. Or you can say that a candidate who is running behind at the moment is still waiting on returns from precincts in her neighborhood, which give her a chance to mount a comeback.

This analysis depends on your knowledge of the territory and what the numbers really mean.

Present Unemotional On-Air Election Night News Coverage

A reporter standing in a candidate's election night campaign headquarters will be surrounded by highly emotional people. It's important to never let that infect your on-air reporting.

If the candidate is winning big, there will be a party atmosphere. Don't get so caught up in the moment that you appear to be part of the campaign by saying, "We're having a great time," "We're winning," or by dancing along to the music. On the flip side, if the candidate you're covering is losing, keep your normal vocal delivery. Don't sound disappointed or sad.

By keeping your professional distance from the mood of the room, you will avoid accusations of political bias by not appearing to be too chummy with the candidate. You can report on what everyone is feeling during your election night coverage, just don't let it be reflected in your voice or actions.

Often, the candidate's staff is on edge because their careers may be on the line. If they are unusually rude or unhelpful, don't let yourself become frustrated. You still must present fair coverage even with these obstacles.

You can enhance your reporting by keeping an eye on how the candidates are using social media. Even if it'll be hours before you see the candidate face-to-face, you can see what that person is saying as the numbers are coming in from the polls.

Move the Story Forward Once the Results Are Known

Usually before the night is over, you will know who has won the race. As long as you have enough awareness of the political process to realize there won't be a runoff or a recount, you can shift to reporting on the future.

That means you can stop asking the winning candidate and his supporters if they are happy they won the election and start asking about his administration. You are getting a jump on tomorrow's headlines by finding out what he wants to do in his first 100 days on the job and who among his campaign team he'll hire once he gets into office.

A losing candidate can certainly be asked what's next, whether he'll ever run again and why he thinks he got beat. If you have to cover both the winning and losing candidates, mention which issues decided the race, which demographic groups determined the outcome and how government will change based on the new faces taking leadership roles.

Election night coverage can be both exciting and intimidating. You'll end up the winner by doing the necessary homework to give you the confidence you need to think on your feet.