Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Polls are the cotton candy of journalism

I've written before on the popular fairy tale mouthed by so many journalists: "We don't make news. We just report it."

The bottom line is that newspapers decide what's news and what isn't. That's not a bad thing or a good thing. It's simple logistics.

The amount of news out there is infinite; after all, what I had for dinner last night was news and was important to me. The amount of space in a newspaper is finite. Editors and journalists have to decide what news they think is most important to the largest part of their readership.

When a paper runs one wire service story about about a bridge in Scotland that dogs like to jump off and puts it on the front page, then it has another wire story about one of the most populous states in the country mandating universal health insurance and buries it in the middle of the paper next to a cheesy graphic... when a paper does this, it's expressing its editorial judgement. Stories about Tartan canines belong on the front page; stories about one of the nation's most pressing issues belong next to a picture of an Elvis stamp.

But the ways newspapers make news is not simply limited to editorial judgement. One of the most obnoxious trends in modern journalism is the tendency to make news out of polls.

Or to be more specific. The tendency for major news organizations to commission a poll and then create a story out of the results of that poll. That IS making news.

Most polls sample several hundred people. Even the most prominent national polls usually don't sample more than 1200 people. Headlines for such polls always read, "Bush approval rating down to 25%." In reality, they should read, "300 people sampled approve of Bush."

Is it really news that a few hundred people approve of the president or of the war in Iraq or whatever issue?

I accept the reality of polls IN news, but not of polls AS news.

What's the difference?

Polls IN news supplement a broader, more substantive story.

Polls AS news are the whole story.

As such, polls as news are a crutch. They are a crutch for lazy reporter in search of an easy, formulaic story. It's the journalistic equivalent of cotton candy. Tastes good but with no nutritional value whatsoever. Cotton candy is fine for a dessert but not as a main course.

The local Post-Star did not invent this unfortunate trend, but they are dilligently following it as they do every other journalistic fad.

Recently, paper did one such 'story' on a poll conducted by Zogby International. According to The Post-Star, Zogby reported that of 401 registered voters asked: 51.2 percent supported incumbent GOP Rep. John Sweeney, 26.5 percent supported Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand and 22.4 percent chose other or undecided.

The headline was: Poll: Sweeney leads 2 to 1.

It could just as easily have been: Sweeney ahead 205-106.

The paper also made a story of the polls results indicating that Sweeney allegedly did well among 'military personnel, NASCAR fans and people who shop at Wal-Mart.'

The paper made a big deal of this story despite the fact that:

a) The poll was commissioned by the Saratoga County REPUBLICAN Committee and

b) Kirsten Gillibrand is not even the Democratic nominee yet. She faces a primary in September against a couple of Democratic opponents. This fact was not mentioned by The Post-Star, not even casually in passing at the very end of the article as per their usual standards.

How is this a story in and of itself? I mean, how is this a story to anyone outside the campaigns? How does this make us better understand Sweeney's and Gillibrand's positions on the issues? (To say nothing of the other candidates)

Stories like this are not about illuminating the public's understanding. They're easy, lazy stories about 'the horse race.' Stories which better belong in the sports section not the news section.

The paper wrote: "I think it is premature to say Sweeney is 'winning' the race 2-1," said [Skidmore College professor Robert] Turner, who analyzed the poll results.

Yet that's exactly what the paper declared: Poll: Sweeney leads 2 to 1.

None of this is surprising. The news media routinely makes news and pre-empts citizen voters by deciding who is a candidate 'worthy' of their attention and who isn't.

It's no secret that they are ignoring Greens and candidates from other smaller parties as well. They are making news by deciding that Greens, Libertarians and others aren't serious enough to cover. If Eliot Spitzer's campaign gets hundreds of articles and Malachy McCourt's campaign gets none, The Post-Star is thus editoirializing in the news coverage, even by omission. This goes to show that media bias is most insidious not when something is written, but in something is omitted.

But the media does the same thing even within the major parties. The establishment media has already decided that Eliot Spitzer is going to win the Democratic nomination for New York governor which is why it's all but ignoring the campaign of his challenger Tom Suozzi. The establishment media has already decided that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is going to be re-nominated to run again for her seat so it's ignoring her challenger Jonathan Tasini.

The media does this because they are overreliant on polls. They do this because they see Spitzer at 80 percent in the polls and decide Suozzi has no chance. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If Spitzer gets all the media coverage and Suozzi none, then Suozzi WILL have no chance. The media is making and shaping news, not simply reporting.

Polls are not a substitute for editorial judgement. They are not a substitute for information. And they should never be used as an excuse to avoid treating candidates fairly.


Update: While The Post-Star may be doing a disservice to its readers by ignoring McCourt, not all media outlets are doing so. The New York Daily News ran an article on his candidacy and the Albany Times-Union did the same. Because these papers trusted that their readers were intelligent to comprehend more than two choices, you can read the articles and make up your own mind. Isn't that what the news media is supposed to be about?

1 comment:

Lisa M said...

The Poll also showed that Sweeney was favored by more aethists than Gillibrand was by the same group.

Interesting that Sweeney's staff decided to tout their popularity with NASCAR fans and not Aethists, huh?