Election polling and inaccurate predictions of a “red wave” in this year’s elections were scrutinized at a forum Saturday hosted by the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.
Karen Tumulty, a Washington Post columnist, and Olivia Nuzzi, New York magazine Washington correspondent, took on journalists’ group-think and the risks of misinterpreting polls at the forum moderated by Frank Bruni, a professor of the practice of journalism and public policy at the Sanford school and a New York Times contributing opinion writer.
Leading up to the midterm elections, news outlets reported a possible red wave, or even a red tsunami. After Election Day, they had to report why that didn’t happen.
“There was all this handwringing before election day about ‘were the polls going to get it wrong, was the media going to screw up again?’” Bruni said. It looks like the polls were correct in reporting the range of outcomes, he said, but the media focused only on the red wave.
“We always forget polls have margins of error,” Tumulty responded. Legacy news outlets are polling less often. On the other side of that decline has been the emergence of smaller polling operations, many with partisan leanings.
Reporters layered onto polls that showed close races the conventional wisdom about the President’s party doing poorly in the first midterm, and how the economy and other issues would be a drag on Democrats.
“We were looking at very tight margins in a lot of places but imposing what I think reasonably was a narrative on top of them because that’s the way it has always been,” Tumulty said.
Group-think in the media is a “huge problem,” Nuzzi said. “It’s just so difficult to question the premise of the conversation that you’re having. You’re talking about subjects that are immensely complicated, that are developing really quickly, you’re trying to find a shorthand, naturally, for how to discuss these complicated things.”
National media’s inaccurate “red wave” predications were fall-out from the inaccurate 2016 polling, the journalists said.
“We were so scared to screwing up again by underestimating the right and people are still so terrified of looking like idiots… that there’s this tendency to just over-correct for 2016,” Nuzzi said.
Bruni said people in the media will continue to make predictions because “it gets clicks,” that is, people read those articles online.
When news organizations publish articles based on polls, they’re usually among the most popular on their sites, he said.
“I think people love telling us we’re wrong on the tail end,” he said. “But I think in the short term, as wrong as we’ve been, they want a vision of the future and even if ours is found to be wrong, they’ll take it over nothing.”
Important, ground-breaking reporting also draws readers, Tumulty said. She mentioned her paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, and its police shootings database.
“Sometimes, the clicks follow the good stuff, too,” she said.