How it's done: CBC Decision Desk FAQs

CBC Online News | Updated March 3, 2008

CBC News covers Alberta Votes 2008 on TV, radio and online. Although the three media lines are using their own journalists to prepare and present individual stories for the audience, it's one crew behind the scenes that crunches the numbers and provides the stats.

Mark Bulgutch, senior executive producer, is a veteran leader of CBC's election coverage team. He answers some viewer questions about our network's election coverage.


Q: How does CBC News report the results of an election?

A: On election night, CBC News, as part of a consortium of TV networks and Canadian Press, has someone in the returning office of every electoral district. In Alberta's case, that means one person in each of the 83 returning offices. When the results of a poll come in to that office, the consortium person phones the results in to a central desk and they are entered into the computer system. The results from that riding and other ridings are collected into one database and made available to all our journalists and the behind-the-scenes crew who put them on the air on radio and television, and online at


Q: Who is behind the scenes?

A: In television, there is a producer and several assistants who analyze the trends, choose the next guest and select which of the results coming in at that moment are the most interesting for the host to talk about on the air. Often these decisions are made on the fly, so while the host is talking about one topic he or she may not know what's coming up next.

It works much the same in radio, with producers and assistants lining up studio guests and reporters in the field to comment on what appear to be the trends we see in the numbers. will have three experienced journalists following every riding race minute-by-minute. As the night unfolds, we will publish several stories about the leaders, parties and candidates. Our computer system will provide up-to-the-second results for every riding, plus other charts and tables of the province's various regions so you can compare and analyze results from urban, rural and geographic parts of the province, at your leisure and at your fingertips.


Q: What is the CBC Decision Desk?

A: We have a team of veteran journalists who are not only experienced in news coverage but also in political and election coverage. For provincial elections, we have half-a-dozen or so people, depending on how many ridings there are, working on the decision desk, plus one supervisor.

Each of them is assigned to watch a certain number of districts. As the poll-by-poll results come in, they get a sense of how the vote is going. They know the history of the riding, and they know from CBC reporters who covered the campaign what the expectation is in each riding. Depending on how close we expect the race to be, and how close to expectations the actual results are as they come in, our journalist will make the decision to project a winner when he/she is confident that the voters' decision is clear.


Q: How does the decision desk come to a decision on the overall election outcome, i.e. who is going to form the next government?

A: Every election is about change - or the lack of change. If nothing changes, we know exactly what the results will be: the same as they were in the last election. So we look at the deviations from last time. And we ask if those deviations, or changes, are enough to affect the overall outcome.

We know that in Alberta, the Progressive Conservatives have to win 42 seats to form their 11th consecutive majority government. So we'll be watching to see if they capture fewer than 41 seats, which would put a minority government into play.

Remember, a poll in a provincial election campaign might survey 500 people. By the time we make a call on election night we might have 1,500 votes in our system. If the results are distributed across the province, we have a very large sample. That makes for a very accurate "snapshot."

So when we have enough votes counted, across most regions of the province, and we see the seats being distributed, we can do the math to calculate which party will have the most seats at the end of the night and we project that they will form a government. And we'll then calculate whether that party can reach 42 seats to form a majority.

Sometimes our rivals may make a projection the moment they go on the air. That projection is based on nothing but intuition and gossip, really. They could have made that projection the night before. We feel our decision desk policy gives CBC News more credibility with the audience because people can trust that we have analyzed the data and come to a decision we are comfortable with, and that it's based on facts and logic.

We believe it's more important to be correct than to be first.



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