Editing the Times

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:

* * *

Hey Jeff:

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.

– Jeff

[I should have added in my reply to him — in the interest of transparency — that I am likely to vote for Clinton.]

  • bbebop

    If you’re going to be transparent, you should start off being transparent and stay that way. I say that because some of your posts read like you’re spinning for Clinton. I’m just saying…

  • It’s not there in news stories. It is there in in my post. I think you an bear to read through and make your own judgments. Do you really want to read caveats at the top of every post and story? That’s silly. And why don’t you tell us whom you’re supporting?

  • I got this email from Nagourney. Giving him the last word:


    Thanks for you note. I’m rushing between planes, but three quick things:

    1) Just to make this clear, this was not an exercise in “covering my flank:”
    I saw something going on out there, and I tried to share it with readers,
    with some very clear cautionary notes and caveats. To me it was genuinely
    interesting, and worthy of raising with people who are following this

    2) The high school thing is a very good idea for a story and one I expect
    we’ll get to.

    3) I share your abhorrence with horserace stories and polls; this is not
    one. I think a story taking a look at whether a candidate has a certain
    generational appeal — or for that matter, appeals to any other segment of
    America — is fascinating and worthy of examination, both in terms of trying
    to understand the appeal of a candidate and the underlying dynamics of an
    election. . If I had written a story saying that Barack Obama has a secret
    weapon over Hillary Clinton and is surging over her because of young voters,
    well that would certainly be a horserace story.

    Onward and thanks for responding.



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  • This exchanges goes to the heart of one of the great indulgences/privileges of journalism – the journalist as “reporter.”

    Nagourney is right that part of reporting is an individual bearing witness to events and individual testimony, as says, but the other side – as you rightly point out – is framing and judgement.

    Are Nagourney’s personal observations newsworthy? The old-fashioned justification is that they are, because reporters are “trained observers.” The more sophisticated view is that by virtue of being disseminated to a wider audience through the NYT, they are observations which have the potential to change the perceptions of the very thing they are observing – the so-called third-person effect.

    Nagourney is making the case for political journalists as connoisseurs – “theatre reviewers” for campaigns. The big question for his bosses is the sustainability of this model of reporting (not very, IMHO).

    The big question for those of us thinking about reporting more generally is whether a more polling and metrics-based approach would be any less open to claims of manipulation or intervention?

    It would certainly offer more data – would it shed any more light? Or would debate move to a yet more arcane meta-level?

  • TLB

    I didn’t read most of what’s above, but I wonder why Nagourney is unable to ask the candidates real questions.

    For a stark example, compare his lightweight article on Huck with this question for Huck.

    Has Nagourney asked any candidate a question like that? Why didn’t he ask Huck about that or a similar matter? Would his bosses have disapproved, due to their strong support for illegal activity and thus he decided that asking real questions about that topic would be a sure way to get sent to the Alaska bureau?

    In brief, if Nagourney won’t ask real questions, is he a real journalist or is he something else?

  • Jeff,

    Being a Hillary fan, you are quite fortunate.

    Even if she loses, you can still simulate the effects of her election.

    You can make your doctor’s appointments no sooner than 12 months ahead.

    You can avoid NYC for fear of a terrorist attack even when the city stays safe.

    You can voluntarily pay more income taxes come every April.

  • I share your abhorrence with horserace stories and polls; this is not

    Adam Nagourney has an abhorence horserace stories based on polls? Who knew? Who could know, what with articles like this, which he wrote on October 9:

    Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, ahead in polls and fund-raising and seeking to position herself as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, is doing what candidates in her circumstances like to do: avoiding risky moves, sidestepping clashes with rivals from her own party and trying to run simultaneously as a primary and general-election candidate.

    The strategy reflects a growing confidence among Mrs. Clinton’s aides that she has so far weathered the intense personal scrutiny her candidacy has attracted. But it carries risks for any candidate — and particularly for one named Clinton, as she has found in recent days.

    In trying to appeal both to the Democrats’ liberal base and to a more centrist general-election audience, Mrs. Clinton, like her husband before her, risks feeding into the assessment of critics that she is more about political calculation than about conviction….

    Her aides also deny that she is running a take-no-chances campaign, pointing to the health plan she offered last month as an example.

    Still, as more polls come in suggesting that her position is strengthening — an Iowa poll published in The Des Moines Register on Sunday showed her taking the lead away from Mr. Edwards among likely caucusgoers — the contrast between her campaign and those of her rivals has become undeniable.

    The main character in horse race coverage is the frontrunner. The primary question in horse race coverage is who’s ahead and what is the strategy for staying ahead, compared to the strategy of those trying to catch up. Those are precisely the themes of the Oct. 9 “political memo,” as it is called. So Nagourney must have felt true abhorrence for his own writing that day. Perhaps his editors made him do it?

  • You raise an interesting issue. The journalism course on polls that AAPOR recently developed in partnership with the Poynter Institute’s NewsU (www.newsu.org) starts with this:

    “Polls and conventional wisdom

    In these examples, you’ll explore how surveys were used to correct common perceptions, speculation or generalizations that found their way into news stories and commentary about major news events. ”

    Here’s the course link: http://www.newsu.org/courses/course_detail.aspx?id=aapor_polling07

  • Nagourney won’t change his approach, the Times will see its stock sold at ever-lesser value, and fewer people will care about either.


    Does the NYT even matter any more?

  • CT…

    Here’s the deal, Jeff, the big problem with your critique: relying on polls to judge Nagourney’s work. Polling in this campaign is simply awful… Some real crap is being churned out on a daily basis but folks like Rasmussen and ARG in particular. Don’t get caught in a poll trap.