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How it's done: CBC Decision Desk FAQs

CBC Online News | Updated June 13, 2006

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

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

 

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

A: On election night CBC News has someone in the returning office of every electoral district. In Nova Scotia's case, that means one person in each of the 52 returning offices. When the results of a poll come in to that office, our person phones the results in to a central desk and they are entered into the computer system. The results from that district and other districts 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 CBC.ca.

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 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.

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 governmment?

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 Nova Scotia, the Conservatives have to add just two seats to their total to form a majority government. So we'll be watching to see if they're holding the seats they have, and then see if they are picking up those extra two. If they can't do it, we know they're not going to form a majority government.

We also know that in Nova Scotia no majority government has ever been elected with less than 39 per cent of the popular vote. It's possible to form a majority with less than that, but knowing the history gives us a benchmark to watch for.

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 27 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.

Q: What happens if there is a minority?

A: It's an exciting night for our election crew and for the audience. We try to make projections of who will form the next government based on the poll results that we get from each of the 52 districts. If things are neck and neck all night long, that makes our job of making a projection much more difficult. But the reality is, we are here to report the facts. The actual results as they come in are much more important to the audience than our educated guess as to what's going to happen next.

 

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