Win Some, Lose Some  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns
From AJR,   December/January 2005

Win Some, Lose Some   

Once again the news media went ga-ga over polls. But by campaign’s end they had begun to aggressively fact-check the assertions of the presidential rivals.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


You can't tell the players without a scorecard, and you can't tell who's winning a race for the presidency without polls. Can you?

The news media went poll crazy once again this time around. Totally around-the-bend poll crazy. Readers, viewers, listeners and blog-surfers were inundated with a dizzying array of the things.

Sometimes, of course, the polls didn't agree. That led to a spate of stories endeavoring to explain why that was the case. Next time I'll look forward to a wave of stories explaining those stories.

And don't get me started on those "Kerry landslide" exit polls, ballyhooed on many blogs with absolutely none of the desperately needed caveats. (See "Lesson Learned")

Now this poll extravaganza hardly ranks at the top of the roster of media outrages. And, as poll defenders say, voters, like baseball fans at a World Series game, really do want to know who's ahead. That's particularly true during a campaign that arouses profoundly powerful emotions, as did the one we just endured.

But every five minutes?

The Intruders once sang that love is like a baseball game, and who am I to argue with that beloved 1960s soul group? But an election really isn't.

There's no doubt that polls are addictive. As Election Day neared, washingtonpost.com posted an updated version of the Post's tracking poll every day at 5 p.m. AJR Managing Editor Lori Robertson and I had great sport with this, asking each other how we could survive the next two hours and 13 minutes until that day's update. By 5:04, it's safe to say that one if not both of us had clicked on it.

But like so many addictions, the poll pandemonium is not without serious downsides. At an excellent panel discussion on campaign coverage at the National Press Club sponsored by Haverford College, Associated Press political correspondent David Espo bemoaned the fact that news organizations too often "chase polls to make story assignments."

In other words, perceptions of how the campaign is going often are driven by prominently played — overplayed--stories on the latest poll. That makes little sense when the results are well within the margin of error, as was often the case this year. Nevertheless, President Bush's or Sen. John Kerry's latest "lead" too often shaped the official campaign narrative.

And, as another panelist, Time Inc. Editor in Chief Norman Pearlstine, pointed out, the heavy emphasis on polls simply propels the news media toward even more horserace-style coverage. Like they need encouragement.

But while there was bad news on the polling front, the end of the campaign witnessed a heartening trend. News organizations began to fact-check the assertions of the combatants much more aggressively than in the past (see "Campaign Trail Veterans for Truth").

Traditionally, too much political coverage features one side claiming something, the other side saying no way, and that's that for that. The news consumer is left completely confused.

But this time around, chastened by their slow-footed response to the Swift Boat distortions, national news organizations began taking that next step: Here's what the truth is.

For example, one Washington Post story debunked Bush's assaults on Kerry's tax and health care plans and the way the president portrayed his rival's much-derided "global test" comment. And fact-checkers in the press forced Kerry to back away from his frequently repeated claim that the Iraq war's price tag had already soared to $200 billion.

This kind of judgment-making is no doubt uncomfortable for some journalists. It may feel as if they are injecting themselves into the debate, dropping their status as neutral observers. But they aren't. It's not a question of choosing sides, of reporting on the basis of personal ideology or partisan loyalty. It's reporting facts and clarifying truth.

The good news is that the news media did plenty of this late in the game. But as Brooks Jackson--director of factcheck.org, which was on the case throughout the campaign--points out, they should have started much, much earlier. The absence of tough scrutiny allows misguided notions to become firmly embedded in the public consciousness.

In the past, such efforts were largely limited to scheduled events like the presidential debates. This time fact-checking spread to day-to-day life on the trail.

Now it's time to apply the technique not merely to presidential election coverage, but to all types of stories.

It's obviously something that has to be done very carefully. If it is, it can play a major role in creating more valuable news reports and better-informed citizens.

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