In a Flyover State: You Better Get It Right on Election Night

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If you have two young boys at home like I do, finding behavior rowdy enough to send the dog scrambling under the table won’t phase you. Hearing yelling at the top of someone’s lungs and seeing objects being hurled across the house won’t even stir your interest.

And all of that happened in my living room last Sunday night. But the source of it was not my six-yearold, or my four-year-old; it was my 39-year-old. As in my wife.

You see, the missus is a lifelong, rabid fan of a little baseball team called the San Francisco Giants. And last week, her Giants swept the Detroit Tigers (with apologies to our executive editor Melissa Grego and our friends at Fox Sports) to wrap up their second World Series crown in three years. And being the mature adult she is, she basically lost it when closer Sergio Romo froze Miguel Cabrera to end the series. Thus the fleeing canine and the yelling and the projectiles. That’s just good solid parenting by example, isn’t it?

Actually, I didn’t mind her little outburst, it was nice to have one not directed at me for once. I’m not saying they aren’t usually warranted; I remain 100% con’ dent in certain truths, such as: If I stack enough dirty dishes in the sink they will, in fact, magically jump into the dishwasher.

But the reason for this free ‡ owing expression of hers was a baseball team that did what you need to do to win a title in any sport—they got smoking-hot at the right time. They were good enough for the 162- game regular season, but once the postseason started, they went to a whole other level, twice battling back from seemingly insurmountable odds to rally and eliminate teams that may have been as good or better than them. And then they just destroyed Detroit in the World Series.

That’s what the great teams and players do: They perform when it matters most. In baseball, you can build up your reputation through a full season, only to find those efforts forgotten if you don’t show up in October, when it matters most.

And the same can be said for the television news business.

You can spend an entire year doing great work, but right or wrong, you are going to be judged even more based on a few days per year when really big news happens. Get it right and you sustain and strengthen your brand. But get something wrong, and that’s what people remember. From Gabby Giffords to the Supreme Court ruling to some false reporting during Hurricane Sandy last week, the list of major league gaffes in recent memory is way too long.

There are so many places people can get “news” these days, many of them of the ‘shoot ’first and ask questions later’ variety. So if you are a major, reputable news organization, one of the silver bullets to stay above the fray is being 100% reliable. When you report it, it has to be fact, period. That’s how you stand apart from all the blogs and such that put clicks before fact checking. And with an incredibly heated Election Night upon us, it will be very interesting to see who rises to the challenge.

It sounds easy, right? Just report only what you absolutely know to be true. So why do we keep screwing it up on major news events?

The problem reared its ugly head yet again last week as Hurricane Sandy battered New York. Reports started to swirl that the ‡ oor of the New York Stock Exchange had flooded, and several news organizations went with it. At the time, I was watching WABC in New York, which did an utterly fantastic job the night of October 29. But having said that, I also have to pick on them. One of their on-air people went with the story that the NYSE had ‡ ooded. Didn’t cite any other reports, just said it as fact. When he threw to another anchor, that anchor stepped in and said the report may, in fact, be false. He claimed WABC wasn’t reporting it themselves, and threw another organization under the bus as the source of the misinformation. At that point, now I was throwing things. Yes, you did report it, citing no other sources, just seconds earlier. I was there.

If you are going to go with something you do not know to be true, and then Â’ nd out you were wrong, at least own up to it. That meant there were two hits on their reputation, not one. Again, I am singling out WABC because I ended up watching them most of the night because I found their coverage the best of the local NY stations. Over the course of an absolutely hectic night in which they were doing great work while battling their own electricity issues, they just had a really, really bad moment. Unfortunately, those are the ones that stick out.

So as you go into your Election Night coverage, please keep in mind that it’s imperative to take a breath. The stakes are as high as they will be for any non-life-threatening event you will cover. This is the time to make big plays—or even more so, not to bobble the ball and commit a costly error. Yes, this sounds obvious and cliché, but we still seem to forget it too often: I know you want to be ’first, but remember ’first to be right. Otherwise, you end up with the same journalistic credibility as some guy sitting in his mom’s basement lighting up a blog or Twitter with shoddily or non-reported “news.” Remember: you can spend years building a brand, but it only takes a second to destroy it.

So on Election Night, channel the San Francisco Giants. Be great when it counts, or the rest of the year doesn’t matter.

E-mail comments to bgrossman@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @BCBenGrossman