Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 11, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

EXIT POLLS....Over at the Campaign Desk yesterday there was a minor little smackdown over the question of whether it's ethical for blogs to publish early exit poll information. Markos of Daily Kos says there's nothing wrong with it, but Zachary Roth disagrees:

Let's be clear: You have the right to do whatever you want on your blog. If you don't feel like meeting basic standards of journalistic integrity, that is indeed your prerogative. But we get to call it what it is.

When conventional print outlets first became widely read, the concept of "ethics" didn't apply to them either. But it soon became clear that the press exercised an influence on public affairs that was often as great as that exercised by public officials. And so just as public officials were expected to meet certain ethical standards, it was gradually agreed that the press should too.

The mainstream press could have refused to comply. They could have made the same argument that you do: "If our readers don't like the way we do things, they'll stop reading our paper." But most newspapers recognized that it was by agreeing to uphold certain basic ethical standards that they won for themselves the right to play a major role in the national debate -- the right, in short, to be taken seriously. That was a tradeoff they were more than willing to make.

I really don't get this. The mainstream press doesn't hold off on publishing exit polls because of ethical constraints, they hold off because they are contractually required to do so. When this information leaks to someone who isn't contractually bound, why shouldn't they publish it?

The "ethical" issue, I gather, is that releasing this information might affect whether people vote or not. And once again, I really don't get this: the media does stuff all the time that affects whether people will vote. In fact, that's practically all they do.

In Florida in 2000, some of the networks actually called the race for Bush Gore before the polls had closed in parts of the state. I think there's a strong case to be made that declaring a winner while the polls are open has such a large impact that it should be avoided. But in a primary contest, where delegates are handed out proportionally, what's the harm? A vote is a vote, and the fact that your guy is either ahead or behind doesn't really affect whether your vote matters.

So: declaring a winner before the polls close is something I agree is a bad idea. But printing early exit polls is just like providing a halftime score. I don't really see anything wrong with it, especially in primaries.

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Kevin Drum 11:08 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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