A TV Station’s Mistake Highlights Fears of Election Night Misinformation

WASHINGTON — When some viewers in Arkansas tuned in to their local television news station last week, they found a surprising report: President Trump had defeated Joseph R. Biden Jr. in the state — three weeks before Election Day.

KNWA, the NBC affiliate serving northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas River Valley, said it was all a mistake. The station had been working on its election-night graphics and mistakenly broadcast fabricated results on a banner at the bottom of the screen during its 5 p.m. local newscast.

In an email, Lisa Kelsey, the vice president and general manager of KNWA and other stations in the area, said the slip-up was inadvertent and only a local issue.

A producer activated the wrong control, which displayed “a crawl of information about the election” for about a minute, she wrote, adding that no election results are currently available.

“We take this mistake very seriously and will ensure it doesn’t happen again,” Ms. Kelsey said in an email.

But the episode highlighted concerns about how news organizations report and characterize incomplete returns on election night and whether, by mistake or design, erroneous or misleading data could shape perceptions about who won before the outcome can be officially declared.

The issue has been a particular concern for Democrats, who fear that Mr. Trump’s statements about election fraud and his reluctance to commit to accepting the outcome could lead him to seize on early returns showing him with a lead to assert that the election is over.