Here’s an exchange between Adam Nagourney of the Times and me over campaign coverage.
On Tuesday, I took out after Nagourney for his Times story presenting the impression that Obama is winning over Iowa youth even though the polls, which he quotes, do not back up that hypothesis. I posted a comment on his story (though it never showed up there) and also crossposted it here. Nagourney responded the next day (though being crazed with the Networked Journalism Summit, I had no time to reply until now). Here is his article and here my criticism (with my comment at the end). Here are his response to me and mine to him:
Here’s my feeling on this: My job is about getting information out to the public, from what I see and learn on the campaign trail, and trying to put it in as much perspective as possible. In this case, it looks like something MIGHT be going on with Obama and younger voters, based on anecdotal evidence (turn-out at his rallies, conversations with younger voters, the make-up of his campaign staff), but also because his campaign is clearly trying to work it (the Iowa High School program is pretty neat.) To me, journalistically, I want to make sure I get that information out to readers – but with all the statistical and historical information that makes clear that this remains very speculative right now.. (Also, keep in mind, I wrote that for one of our Web columns, where we have more flexibility in voice and tone – hence the phrase, ‘polls aside.” — which was important I think in communicating to readers that this is not some breathless announcement story.)
The alternative would have been not to write anything at all, and sit back and feel like a jerk if Obama, say, sweeps through Iowa and New Hampshire and exit polls show it’s because it was because of a sudden surge of under-30 voters.
Hope that answers your question.
Thanks so much for the reply.
Of course, it’s your job to get information out to the public. But it’s also your job to judge that information. You had an impression. But the polls simply didn’t back up that impression. So is that impression information? Is it news, worthy of running in the Times? And is covering your flank — so you don’t feel like a jerk, as you say — sufficient cause to shove this round peg into that square hole?
In any case, this remains a horse-race story and I’m among those who are tired of them and, indeed, think they can be a perilous addiction. For they are too much about betting, entertainment, and ego: covering one’s rear in hopes of being the one who called it right. But what value does that really give us? What does that tell us about the candidate? What knowledge or news does that provide to help us vote? Not much, I’d say.
I’d point you to this post, inspired by a Politico blog item that noted the syncopation between the polls and the media’s narrative: Clinton was ahead in the polls but Politico had the impression that national media’s narrative gave Obama the mo’. Now that all this coverage is digital and searchable, it’s not hard to test that hypothesis as I did here. Note also the six-month candidate coverage chart on Daylife (where, full disclosure, I am a partner); the service gathers and analyzes coverage from thousands of news sources. It shows that Clinton’s coverage has not broken away from Obama’s until last month. Media impression is only now catching up to voter reality.
So return to your story. Without the facts — and polls are about as close as we get — one is left (I was left) with the question: Why did you do the story? Seeking your motive is a reasonable question since you’re the guy who controls that news hole into which was shoved this dubious peg.
So if writing in a web column gives you more flexibility in voice and tone, then I say run with it. Be transparent. Bloggy, even. If Obama impresses you, say so. If you think his high-school program is really neat, then print that. Make that the reason for the story. For without that, we are left to wonder: Is this wishful thinking? Please tell us.
Now please allow me to speak more as a former editor than as a blogger and say that there are plenty of ways I think you could have attacked this story that wouldn’t have required the taffy stretching. A few ideas:
You could have focused in solely on that high-school program and reported the hell out of it, talking with the strategists who created it, the operatives who facilitated it, and the students who followed this Pied Piper and those who didn’t. Then I still would have seen the Obama campaign’s dogged pursuit of youth. I’d still like to know about the programs of the other candidates, though.
Or you could have gone to rallies for Obama and Clinton and done a census of age. It’s even something you could have crowdsourced: Get volunteers to ask 100 random, truly random people their age. Get a fact. Contrast that with the polls. Talk with the young people in both places. Tell me why they like either candidate. Why they don’t like the other. Let me hear them speak.
Or go to a mall and find 100 random youth yourself. Ask them for whom they’re voting and why and whether any actions of the campaigns have influenced them.
Or do a statistical analysis of past campaigns and show how much impact the youth vote had on victory since, say, 18-year-olds got the vote. Then look at the relative support of Clinton and Obama and explain why it is or isn’t wise for the Obama campaign to be going after youth.
Or poll young people about the issues and stands that matter to them — if, indeed, youth speak at all monolithically — and analyze the candidates’ stands next to that to see who should be more appealing (this approach having the fringe benefit of actually discussing a few issues in addition to the obvious, Iraq).
And if Iowa’s caucuses are, as you report, unlikely to be affected by the youth since they swing so old, then maybe picking another state might be more productive.
Journalistically, to paraphrase you, doesn’t replacing reportorial generalities and rhetorical questions with reported facts get more information out to readers and voters?
I’ll be blogging this, too. I don’t know why my comment didn’t end up attached to your story. If you with to reply, I’d hope you’d do so in one or the other of our comments.
[I should have added in my reply to him — in the interest of transparency — that I am likely to vote for Clinton.]