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Media (non)coverage of campaign polls: Two cheers for the Post

- May 18, 2009

The media are often, and justly, criticized for their overuse and misuse of opinion polls. There’s much more to politics than the horse race, after all, and there’s much more to gauging public opinion than just throwing together some ill-considered questions, finding some folks — doesn’t much matter who — to answer them, counting yeas and nays, and drawing overstated conclusions therefrom. My co-blogger John Sides takes special pleasure in beating up on the media (especially, it seems, Matt Bai) for such sins (here and here and here and here).

It is thus newsworthy when a prominent newspaper — in this case, the Washington Post — declines to play the usual game. There’s a governor’s race going on in Virginia, the Post ‘s home turf. It’s a pretty interesting race, too, owing largely to the high-profile candidacy of Terry McAuliffe, the former DNC chair and manager of Hillary Clinton’s failed run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, and to the Democrats’ recent successes in Virginia gubernatorial elections (think Chuck Robb, Mark Warner, and Tim Kaine).

The campaign has been going on for quite a while now, but the normally poll-saturated pages of the Post have been bereft of polling results. Maybe this is because the Post, like many other newspapers, is having a tough time of it financially and is in cutback mode, so it’s not out commissioning its own surveys at the drop of a hat into the ring. Still, there’s quite a bit of polling going on around the governor’s race, and Post just isn’t reporting it. How come?

According to a column (gated, free) by Jon Cohen in Sunday’s Post, the answer is simple but unexpected: The Post thinks the polls that have been completed by various outfits, not to put too fine a point on it, suck, and in an unusual act of self-restraint, the Post just isn’t going to have anything to do with them. As Cohen puts it, “Our responsibility is to scrutinize the data we report as carefully as we do the sources we quote in stories. By publishing numbers of uncertain quality or ones lacking essential context, we amplify those findings, and risk misleading you.”

Good for the Post, I say. Praising an institution for not doing what it shouldn’t be doing may seem a bit over the top, but that’s what it’s come to vis-a-vis media coverage of politics, especially political campaigns.