Press Box

Don’t Worry About the Voters

Dear Steve,

What exactly is it about the early release of exit polls by Web sites that panics you? Reading your note carefully, I see that your primary concern is that a potential voter might observe the early exit-poll numbers and then not vote for his candidate. But since when is it the primary responsibility of the press—print, broadcast, or Internet—to maximize voter turnout?

To allay some of your concerns, exit polls, especially the early ones, aren’t projections of the winners. They’re merely raw data from selected precincts that news organizations use to get a feel for what the final return might look like. These polls help network anchors think about how to shape their 5 p.m., 6 p.m., and 7 p.m. newscasts and give print editors an indication of where they should apply editorial muscle for the next day’s newspaper.

Rarely are early exit polls much more precise than the tracking polls news organizations run and publish right up to Election Day. Using your logic, news organizations shouldn’t publish tracking polls on the eve of an election because some forlorn voter out there might read it, lose faith in his candidate, and stay home instead of voting. But nobody— not even you—thinks reporters should suppress tracking-poll data because it might change the course of an election. Likewise, nobody in the news business thinks we should suppress negative news stories or biting (or praiseful) commentaries because they might move the needle in one direction or the other. We go with what we know.

Also given your logic, on Election Day in November, the networks shouldn’t inform viewers who won the East Coast states before the West Coast states polls close because that might deter turnout. Are you for holding all exit polls, all elections counts, and all projections until the last poll closes on the western tip of Kauai? I’d love to hear from you on this.

I have no problem with the networks holding their fire until they’re ready. That’s their call. No, actually, it’s not their call. The networks and the Associated Press, which controls the exit poll consortium (National Election Pool), contractually obligate all members and subscribers to hold the exit-poll data to their vests until a prearranged time—usually when most of the polls have closed in a state.

Why should this onerous news monopoly embargo apply to journalists who aren’t a party to it? In my mind, it’s clear that it shouldn’t. If National Election Pool owners and subscribers want to keep the exit-poll numbers secret, they should learn to keep their mouths shut, their phones on the hook, and their e-mails offline. And they should keep the network anchors and analysts from making their “wink-wink,” “nod-nod” assertions about what election trends are forming before the polls close. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s an example from the recent California recall election.

I’m a firm believer in what you quote one blogger saying above, but I’ll put a slightly different spin on it: Journalists aren’t in the business of concealing information but in setting it free. Every news organization and every blog should feel free to publish what it knows without an obligatory scolding from Campaign Desk about press responsibility. I think the republic will somehow survive.

Now, back to you for one more go-round.