The use of polls in the media’s coverage of the 2012 US elections
Do we more value people with opinions or those who have the ability to always act impartially? The answer lies in the circumstances. When it comes to parenting, teaching children to have a firm individual opinion is usually considered moral. On the other hand, academic teachers who consciously reflect their political or ideological ideas in the classroom are regarded as unethical. Why and how does society decide in which circumstances it is acceptable to practice partisan activism?
The same question should be posed when evaluating news coverage. During the time the 2012 USA Presidential Elections were heating up, the media continued to cover the presidential debates in a condemnable manner. Many, if not most, of the articles about the US elections could be characterized as “horse race coverage.” The term “horse race” refers to “any news story or article whose main focus is describing how a particular candidate (…) is faring during the election, in other words, trying to predict the outcome.”
Although horse race coverage of the elections is admittedly quite interesting and almost entertaining, it is also utilized as a technique to lure in audience and/or readers. A study shows that while 56% of all Americans followed the first debate live, 83% followed any coverage of the first presidential debate. As a result, more people followed the debates through the media, which tends to cover the elections by focusing more on the candidates’ performance, rather than on how citizens might be affected by the topic of the debate. Therefore, most voters judge the candidates according to how the media chooses to present them.
Moreover, how does a journalist come to predict the outcome of an election? In most cases this is done through the use of polls and the research conducted by various organization such as the National Journal or CNN. But, isn’t it the media’s responsibility to present all the facts and views, instead of trying to conclude who is more likely to win the election? When journalists use polls, which are usually conducted by private companies with an agenda, they don’t cover what the candidates themselves are proposing for the citizens and for the country. Nowadays, so many polls on the elections are conducted that a journalist has to choose which one to publish, which indirectly means that a journalist is selectively choosing specific research and not presenting all of it. For instance between the dates September 27th and October 30th 2012, Fox News reported that Obama had the vote of 48.9% of Americans and that Romney had only 44.6%, while CNN reported that Obama and Romney both were at 47%. Clearly the two News Corporations used different polls and reflected a completely different picture of the elections.
Exclusively using polls and covering the elections only though a “horse race” perspective may eventually lead to biased news, because instead of explaining the effect proposed policies may have on voters, the media criticizes or praises the performance of the candidates as debaters. Horse race journalism is an example of how screening voices and ignoring concrete facts (in this case the facts are the proposals of the candidates), instead of assumptions (especially predictions of the future), leads to the media choosing sides. All in all, the media has to be impartial in its coverage and while presenting a story it should leave the “guessing” and “predicting” to the public.
 Wikipedia entry for the term “Political handicapping.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_handicapping
 Pew Research Center. “One-in-Ten ‘Dual-Screened’ the Presidential Debate.“ October 11, 2012. http://www.people-press.org/2012/10/11/one-in-ten-dual-screened-the-presidential-debate/
 Fox News Election website: http://www.foxnews.com/politics/elections/index.html
 CNN Polling Center website: http://edition.cnn.com/POLITICS/pollingcenter/polls/3231