A newsroom view on election night
Associate Professor Tim Kiska and 20 of his journalism students spent Tuesday night in the Detroit Free Press newsroom assisting with election news coverage and gathering voting results for the too-close-to-call presidential race.
Election night is arguably the most exciting time to be in a newsroom. Phones are ringing with results. Reporters are writing down notes. And the adrenaline often lasts until the early hours of the morning.
“Even under social-distancing norms. It's like being blasted out of a cannon — which is great, if you like that kind of thing,” says Communications Associate Professor Tim Kiska, who joined the Detroit Free Press at age 22 and has covered most elections since 1974. “Election night is the greatest night ever in a newsroom."
Naturally, Kiska wants his journalism students to get in on this first-hand experience. So he, like he’s done for the last few elections, invited them into the newsroom to assist with the election coverage. Twenty mask-wearing UM-Dearborn students showed up on Tuesday to collect the called-in vote tallies from Michigan’s 80 precincts — all while following COVID safety measures.
As the sun went down, students started to get hungry. “I heard food is on the way. What are we having?,” one student asked. Kiska replied: “Something that won’t make you puke.” In a nail biter election — during a historic pandemic — food might be the last thing causing that reaction. But like seasoned journalists, they continued answering the ringing phones, shouting out numbers, and didn’t let the stress of a hectic news night rattle them.
When asked about their 2020 election night in the newsroom experience, here’s what some of Kiska’s students had to say.
Gail L. Monds, Journalism and Screen Studies (JASS) major
“Election night 2020 was like no other for me. I spent the night in the Detroit Free Press newsroom. My assignment was helping three election desk vote tabulators as they documented results coming in from around the state. In the calm before the storm, we watched the network coverage and ate pizza. When the polls closed, the pace picked up. The phones were ringing. Getting an accurate vote count was harder than it seemed. The precinct reporters did not always have full tabulations. Absentee vote counts were scarce at times. The lights went out more than once. The hectic pace left me breathless, literally and figuratively. Seeing the election process come together from behind the scenes and working with a great team is something I’ll never forget. I had been looking forward to this since Professor Kiska mentioned it to our class last year.”
Matthew Catoni, JASS major
“Election night at the Detroit Free Press proved to be everything I expected it to be and more. I was initially unsure about how the evening would go due to the circumstances surrounding this year’s election, but it turned out to be much less hectic than I was anticipating. Two other students and I were assigned to monitor the status of precincts online — which I found fascinating, as the time it took to process the ballots varied by precinct. The night proved to be an enlightening experience that made me appreciate our voting system more.”
Megan Corder, Communications major
“This was a unique experience for me because I have never been a part of anything that had to do with politics, so this was an excellent opportunity to get in on the action while building new journalism skills. Everyone working along with me was very amiable, which made the experience fun. I helped answer the phones to count Michigan counties absentee and precinct votes. There were about two hours in the night where the phones were ringing nonstop, so we all had to be fast while ensuring accurate information. This experience showed me that the election process could be somewhat hectic. You never knew when you would receive the information needed from the polls. Sometimes it took a few minutes after the polls closed, but other times it took a couple of hours. It gave me insight into what it is like to be a journalist.”
Richard Tharrett, JASS major
“It has become an important theme in this election: Count every vote. That was exactly what I was tasked with doing as a volunteer at the Detroit Free Press election desk. You could feel the energy building in the newsroom as phones began to ring from counties and precincts across Michigan. From Marquette in the U.P. to Grand Rapids on the west side, I recorded votes coming in to compile into the Free Press election database. It was fascinating to be a part of a process that would inform the state and country of such a highly important player as Michigan in the 2020 election.”
Ta'Kira Coleman, JASS major
“As I entered floor two of the Detroit Free Press building.I knew that I’d be getting a glimpse into my career as a journalist and taking part in something that will be seen as an historic event, the 2020 presidential election. Professor Tim Kiska first explained to us what to expect. After a quick discussion, everyone went to their assigned desk and prepared for the highly anticipated election. I sat at my desk, pulled out my laptop and jotted down important factors to ask when we received a call from our reporters at the voting polls. At around 8:30 p.m., I received my first call. Talking with people came natural to me. Speaking with the volunteers giving each county’s voting results was fun and it also provided a taste of a journalistic sourcing for a story when I needed to call the county clerk to see if they would have the mail-in ballots counted. I was grateful for this experience and I would love to do this every election year.”