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Journalism by Poll Simply Reflects Conventional Wisdom

I teach my students that the best reporters zig when everyone else zags. They leave the panting pack behind to look to the corners of news, to listen to voices that are ignored, such as the old, the poor, the working stiff; to seek out experts with different opinions and fresh rationales for them; and to visit the countless places in America other than Capitol Hill or the brick and stone halls of state and local power.

But turn on the TV, or turn to the web sites of the leading news organizations in America these days and, increasingly, they allow politics and policy by poll to rule.

Forget the fact that even the most accurate polls have outliers that are way off the mark. Forget that these polls always have what's called a margin of error of 3 percent of more, meaning that a 50-50 split in opinion could be 53-47 either way. Forget that polls depend on how questions are asked and how random a random sample can is in an era when more and more people can't be or refuse to be reached.

The media love polls -- particularly those that reinforce the conventional wisdom that everyone will conveniently forget if and when it is proven wrong. Nowhere these days does that seem more true than when it comes to politics and the polling of the proverbial "angry American" in the run-up to election 2010.

Reflecting on a couple of polls by that most poll happy of news organization -- USA Today -- makes the point.

Today, at, you can learn that "Dems in power could be in peril, poll says."

"WASHINGTON — Democratic congressional candidates face a political landscape even rockier than those in 1994 and 2006 that ended with election upheavals that changed control of Congress, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds."

First off, this is only news if you've been living in a cave. I've been reading this story day after day for weeks, based on poll a, poll b, or is it poll t?

The story, in fact, trots out more polls to "prove" its polled point:

"Whatever problems the GOP risks down the road, Democrats seem headed for disaster in the election eight weeks away:


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• President Obama's approval rating is 43%; in the separate daily Gallup Poll, it was at 46% Thursday. In the past, when a president's rating fell below 50%, his party suffered larger setbacks in midterm elections than if his approval was above that level."

Yet the same story notes, "A third of those polled approve of the job congressional Republicans are doing, the same dismal rating congressional Democrats receive."

Hmm. That's interesting. Even more interesting is another poll published just a day before by -- That Gallup poll reported that Americans blame Republican President George W. Bush more than Democrat Barack Obama for the state of the U.S. economy. Here is how that piece began:

"Nearly two years after Barack Obama was elected president, Americans still are inclined to blame his predecessor for the nation's current economic problems.

In a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken Friday through Sunday, more than a third of those surveyed said George W. Bush deserved a great deal of the blame for economic woes and a third said he should get a moderate amount of it. Not quite another third called that unfair, saying Bush warranted not much or none of the responsibility."

So help me out here. Since Americans blame a Republican president more than the current Democratic president for the perilous state of this country's economy, why is it that they plan to vote overwhelmingly to put Republicans back in power? Something doesn't seem to add up, which is precisely when reporters need to report -- not just give the numbers.

I wonder: Are people simply expressing their frustration over the economy in their answers to pollsters or will they really vote the way they're saying they will today? If they don't like or trust the Republicans -- and in fact hold President Bush more accountable for the financial meltdown -- why would Americans after two short years of Democratic Congressional leadership want to throw out the new party in power and go back to the one voters apparently believe created the mess in the first place? I know "it's the economy stupid," but that doesn't mean Americans have to be that stupid about what got the economy where it is.

Until someone really explores the contradictions in these numbers to me instead of merely regurgitating the data piecemeal, I remain very skeptical of the conventional wisdom, miserable economy and all.

Unless, of course, Democrats, demoralized by a drumbeat of bad polls between now and the election, choose to sit the election out.

Oh. Have you heard that more American believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim? The polls say so. Of course, it's not true, but who has the time to figure out why they say so. That would require significant reporting.

Jerry Lanson

Jerry Lanson is an associate professor of journalism at Emerson College in Boston.  His third book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves: Telling Stories in an Age of Blogging" will be published by Rowman & Littlefield this fall. His blog can be found at

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