This is an alert
FAIR-L Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting
please see the bottom of this page for information on subscribing to their
great Media alerts.
ACTION ALERT: USA Today
Conceals Key Information in Recount Story
April 11, 2001
On April 4, USA Today announced the results of its long-anticipated re-examination
of Florida ballots (done in conjunction with the Miami Herald) with the
headline: "Newspapers' Recount Shows Bush Prevailed in Fla. Vote."
The headline touting a Bush win referred to the paper's estimate of what
would have happened if the U.S. Supreme Court had not blocked the hand
recount of 60 Florida counties that had been ordered by the state Supreme
Court. The paper found that Bush likely would have won such a recount.
But USA Today's investigation also found something else-- something it
chose not to tell its readers: The official hand counts in the remaining
seven Florida counties, completed before the U.S. Supreme Court stepped
in, had missed hundreds, even thousands of potential Gore votes. If those
votes had been properly counted, under two of the four counting standards
used by the paper to determine valid votes, Gore would have won the entire
state by 300 to 400 votes.
The paper examined ballots from all 67 counties in Florida, but it only
*reported* the results from 60 counties where hand counts were unfinished
(except on the paper's website, USAToday.com). The paper's decision to
exclude its findings in seven counties was based on its strategy of trying
to answer only one narrow question: What would have happened if the U.S.
Supreme Court had not stepped in and stopped the manual recounts in Florida?
The paper therefore included only the *official* results from the seven
counties, even though its own investigation found that the official results
had potentially missed enough Gore votes to change the outcome of the
election. None of this was revealed to USA Today's readers. The April
4 article explained that the "official counts were final and would
not have changed if the U.S. Supreme Court had not stopped the hand recount."
In making this decision, USA Today failed to report some of the most newsworthy
aspects of its own ballot review. The Miami Herald, which worked with
USA Today on the study, also played down the fact that the re-examination
showed that Gore got more votes than Bush under two of the four standards
(4/4/01). But the Florida paper at least provided its readers some valuable
information about the limitations of the official recounts from the seven
The Herald explained in an April 5 follow-up story that canvassing boards
in Broward and Palm Beach counties "could have credited hundreds
more ballots to the Democrat if they had counted every dimple, pinprick
and hanging chad as a vote, a review of ballots in both counties shows.
In Broward, where the official hand recount added 567 votes to Gore's
county lead over Bush, a Herald-sponsored ballot review found that Gore's
margin could have been 1,475, if every mark had been counted as a valid
vote. In Palm Beach, where the official hand recount added a net gain
of 174 votes to Gore's tally, the Herald-sponsored review found a potential
Gore net gain of 1,081."
The Herald also reported on April 4 that the standards used in the original
manual recount were not applied consistently: "The review found that
canvassing boards in those counties discarded hundreds of ballots that
bore marks no different from those on scores of ballots that were accepted
as valid presidential votes. Had those ballots instead been counted as
valid votes, allowing dimples, pinpricks and hanging chads, Gore would
be in the White House today."
USA Today's investigation does indeed provide evidence that if the U.S.
Supreme Court had not stopped the statewide manual recount ordered by
the Florida Supreme Court, George W. Bush might well still have been declared
the winner of the Florida election, and could still have become president.
This is a newsworthy finding, and it deserved to be reported.
But the larger question of the Florida election is who actually received
more votes. The statewide totals USA Today chose not to report do much
more to answer that question than the paper's more limited look at the
effect of the U.S. Supreme Court decision.
USA Today justified not reporting its statewide results by saying that
it "did not want to substitute its judgment for that of election
officials." If that's the case, why recount the votes at all? After
all, it was "election officials," including Florida secretary
of state Katherine Harris and the Supreme Court majority, who decided
that most ballots that needed to be manually recounted should be ignored.
If, on the other hand, election officials are not infallible, then a news
outlet should present as much information as it has about what actually
went on during the election.
While the effect of the U.S. Supreme Court decision is an important question,
the question of who actually got more votes in Florida is even more important.
By not reporting vital information, USA Today has violated journalistic
principles and further confused the public about a subject that surely
needed no more confusion.
ACTION: Please contact USA Today and let them know that concealing
the full statewide results of its investigation of undervotes was a disservice
CONTACT: Hal Ritter, Managing News Editor USA Today firstname.lastname@example.org
Phone: (703) 907-7121 Fax: (703) 247-3100
As always, please remember that your comments will be more effective if
you maintain a polite tone. Please cc email@example.com with your correspondence.
Unfortunately, we are unable to link to the online version of USA Today's
recount report because the paper's website ( http://www.usatoday.com
) requires readers to pay to view archived stories. You can read the
Miami Herald's recount report online at: http://www.miami.com/herald/special/news/flacount/index.htm