The Washington Post

Political Polling, News Coverage and Accurate Results

If you want to know how the 2016 presidential election is shaping up, be wary of polling results reported by the media. They may not be wrong, but they may be newsier more than they are right.

If you want to know how the 2016 presidential election is shaping up, be wary of polling results reported by the media. They may not be wrong, but they may be newsier more than they are right.

Politicians may tout polls that cast their candidacy in its brightest light. TV stations have a tendency to report on polls they view as newsy, even if they aren’t necessarily accurate.

The Washington Post compared polling and reporting results from the 2008 presidential campaign and found TV newscasts tended to report polls that showed a tight race between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, even though the average results of all polls reflected Obama was clearly ahead.

“On average,” according to the Post story, “viewers likely heard more about polls that portrayed the race as close than polls that more accurately showed Obama in the lead.”

TV news gave more air time to jumps in poll results, which gave the race that worn on for months spark of “breaking news," even if the actual poll changes were mere aberrations.

The researchers who prepared the Post report conducted an exhaustive search of all the polls that TV reporters could have cited. They found time after time polls showing Obama gaining or holding the lead were bypassed in favor of polls that showed the race as very tight.

Polling can be slippery enough in revealing the actual mindset of the electorate without any help from people trying to put their finger on the scale. Pollsters use different samples and apply different techniques. The timing of when a poll is conducted can be before or after a significant event in a campaign. How questions are framed can shade the results, too. With all that built-in variation, selecting what you might call outlier polls makes the reporting even more suspect.

As Nate Silver, founder of FiveThirtyEight.com, has said, looking at the averages of all credible polls provides a more reliable picture of where a race stands and what voters are thinking. Even the average of all the polls can be wrong, Silver admits, so the takeaway is don’t take polls too seriously, especially when they are still weeks to go before the election.

Looking at the 2016 presidential election, polls have played a large part in both the campaigns and the reporting of the race. GOP nominee Donald Trump routinely bragged about his lead in the polls during the primary season and has complained that poll results showing him trailing Democrat Hillary Clinton are media fictions. Trump’s campaign manager, who is a pollster, says Trump is actually ahead, but his secret supporters are unwilling to tell pollsters they plan to vote for him.

The media, especially TV news, gave a lot of coverage to the post-convention polling bumps that both Trump and Clinton received. And, there has been nonstop media discussion about GOP fears that a slumping Trump presidential campaign will have negative effects on down-ballot Republican candidates, especially in a handful of tight Senate races that could decide which party is in control in the next Congress. And TV networks have begun reporting on what CBS News calls a “poll of polls” to avoid cherrypicking results.

Coverage of the 2016 race has drilled down into the demographics of the race. The simplest narrative is that Trump appeals to white, older, non-college-educated men while Clinton appeals strongly to women, minorities and people with college degrees. This narrative fits neatly into the tight time frames for TV news coverage and may be this campaign season’s newsy fixation, even if it is over-simplified and nearly stereotypical.

Skepticism of political polling remains a smart move, as 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney learned when he headed into election day thinking, based on polls, he was about to be elected president. Believing in polls is a little bit like believing your own press releases. Believe at your own risk.

Setting the Record Straight

When the news media makes a significant fact error in a story, it is perfectly all right — and, in fact, a good idea — to ask for a correction.

The same advice doesn't apply when you simply dislike "the other side of the story" contained in the coverage.

There is no magic in asking for a correction. Start by calling the reporter who wrote the story. Most times, they are eager to clear up any mistakes. Before running a correction, they will (and should) verify your claim there is a mistake. You can help by providing a credible or official source of the correct information.

Some people wonder if a correction is worth the bother. Others fret it simply brings additional attention to a story you would just as soon have fade away. Those concerns are misplaced.

You need to stick up for your facts — whether it is the correct spelling of a name or an accurate description of a legal process. Reporters and editors don't resent that; they respect it. A constructive, polite exchange about a correction can actually establish better rapport with reporters and editors, paying dividends in future coverage.

Errors in print can be frustrating. Corrections appear in later editions, often in a section reserved for corrections, not necessarily with the same page dominance as the original story. However, most archival searches nowadays occur digitally, so a correction for online editions can be worth the effort. If you rigorously monitor a story's appearance online and spot an error early enough, you sometimes can avoid the mistake appearing in print, at least in later editions.

TV and radio newscasts seldom run corrections, except for the most egregious errors. However, they also have websites where corrections can be made so errors aren't perpetuated. Some broadcast shows, such as NPR's All Things Considered, have a section devoted to reader letters, which often point out mistakes or poor news judgment.

Bloggers may hang out somewhere between credible journalists and eager hobbyists, but they also should be given attention when they make a significant fact error. A student in one of my classes who operates a discount website was upset when a blogger essentially re-posted an old piece about the site's deficiencies under its prior ownership, I encouraged him to call the blogger to remind him of the change in ownership and the steps taken to address the faults he identified. The call was an opportunity to get a positive post, contrasting the new with the old.

Creating a Crisis with No Upside

Susan G. Komen for the Cure has built a reputation for enlisting volunteers and corporate partners to combat breast cancer. The charitable organization nicked that reputation this week in a baffling self-created crisis.

Komen announced early in the week it would stop funding breast cancer screenings by Planned Parenthood. At first, Komen said the cut-off resulted because of a new policy not to fund organizations under investigation. Later, top Komen officials said there was a shift in funding strategy. By week's end, after angry outcries from women's groups, doctors and influential senators in Congress, Komen backtracked on its decision.

In one short week, Komen guaranteed itself a place as a case study in communications textbooks of what not to do to avoid creating a crisis.

After Komen made its announcement, critics used social media to denounce the decision as bowing to political pressure by anti-abortion forces, which have conducted a campaign, aided by Congressional Republicans, to dry up public and private funding for Planned Parenthood. 

Planned Parenthood says abortions account for 5 percent of its health care activities, which include screening low-income women for breast and cervical cancer. Women's advocates note Planned Parenthood is often the only place where poor women can obtain any form of preventive health care.