Do Poll Stories Help Voters?

Article excerpt

Sometimes an overreliance on numbers can steer us wrong.

Now that the first part of the election cycle is winding down, journalists are taking a short breather between the primaries and the presidential campaign itself.

Along with catching a breath, we can also take time to evaluate our coverage so far. For example, have we used polls responsibly or has our over-reliance on these props negatively affected the recent coverage of the Democratic primaries?

The media has made some mistakes, says Mark Jurkowitz, media critic for the Boston Globe.

"The punditry predictions about Howard Dean being the front-runner and that he might be almost unbeatable - which were based on a number of polls - were certainly way wrong, as we found out," he said.

But the polls weren't all to blame, he added. "In the last few days, the polls did show movement away from Dean and some dramatic movements towards Kerry."

Jurkowitz says that many political reporters frequently fall back to a "polling horse-race" type of coverage, especially during a multicandidate primary season.

"Whether accurate or not, they create some sort of empirical sense of what's going on in the race," he said. "And there's some psychological relief when reporters can look at some numbers, something solid as a snapshot of the race."

BRING ON THE BEAT REPORTERS

But there is another important reason why political coverage is often so dominated by poll numbers, says jurkowitz. And that's because, too often, it's the political reporters who cover politics.

Now that might seem to be self-evident, but Jurkowitz points out that the primaries are about more than just politics. They're also about issues such as education, the environment and international affairs. It would make sense to get other reporters involved in covering the elections, he says.

"If we're going to talk about taxes, why wouldn't business reporters be the best people to cover that aspect of the race?" he asked. "If we're going to talk about Iraq, why wouldn't Pentagon or defense reporters be the best to cover that part of the race?"

Political reporters, by comparison, often are not the best experts on the issues that a news organization might have.

Newspapers are better at this than other media outlets, he added.

"I think print does a better job of more sophisticated coverage than television does," he said. "If you look at major newspapers, you don't see stories dominated by poll numbers every single day. You get a lot of different stories."

Television, by comparison, tends more toward shorter and choppier stories, or the kind of insider-baseball analysis that can fill long hours on 24-hour cable news stations.

"Political reporters understand the language of strategy and horse race better than anything else, so they tend to gravitate to those kinds of stories and to gravitate to polls," he said. "And frankly, it's easier to cover polls than to try to get a handle on the tough issues.

As a result, he said, political coverage often revolves around an overuse of polls.

"We in the media pay attention to these polls, and the insiders pay attention to these polls, but the truth is the public is not nearly as interested in those kinds of things," he said. "They're certainly not as interested in those kinds of inside-baseball strategy things as the media."

Polls do have a value, he added.

"I personally am interested in them, when I see them, I look at them, and they have broadly tended to be accurate over time," he said. "Exit polls are pretty good because there's interesting information there about why people voted the way they did. I just think people should be more discriminating about how they use them."

DON'T TRUST THE EARLY POLLS

In particular, reporters should be more discriminating about how they use the earliest polls of a campaign, before the public has a chance to find out who the candidates really are. …