The vice president debate’s bogus “poll results”

October 12, 2012

How out of control has the market for political news gotten?

Following the debate last night, CNBC hosted a vote on its Web site posing the straightforward question: Who do you think won? Those who clicked through to the voting platform found a disclaimer:

Not a Scientific Survey

Results may not total 100% due to rounding

In its post-debate broadcast, CNBC also included caveatesque language playing down the implications of the numbers. From the broadcast transcript on CNBC.com:

just to bring up a couple of points. we did have an informal poll on cnbc, about 3,000 people wrote in, based on what they have been writing, it went 60% in favor of ryan, 31% in favor of biden.

Numbers! Polls! Data! Outlets such as Politico, the Daily Caller and National Review gobbled up the CNBC findings, as explained by CJR’s Ryan Chittum. Any outlet that grabbed the numbers and ran with them, Chittum argued, was spreading ”misinformation.”

Spreading it far and wide, too, which is precisely the problem. The Breitbart.com story pushing the CNBC “results” had 2,499 Facebook “shares” as of this writing.

Maybe the people at Breitbart.com were impressed with the CNBC tweets, which didn’t carry the appropriate disclaimers, perhaps because of Twitter’s 140-character space limitations:

[POLL RESULTS] Who do you think won the VP Debate? Paul Ryan: 56%, Joe Biden: 36%, Neither: 8%. #CNBC2012

— CNBC (@CNBC) October 12, 2012

A more honest approach to writing the same tweet:

[Nonsense web vote] Who do you think won the VP Debate? Paul Ryan: 56%, Joe Biden: 36%, Neither: 8%. #CNBC2012

Because that’s precisely what a non-scientific survey is; it’s nonsense. Means precisely nothing, if that. It’s not only unrepresentative, it’s also manupulable and likely corrupt, in some innocent way.

The truth-in-labeling exercise yields the obvious question of why a news organization would even bother with such a meaningless venture. The answer, of course, lies in Web traffic. At the moment, there are 198,394 votes on the platform of CNBC’s unscientific survey. A spokesman for CNBC declined to comment for the record about the unscientific survey.

The voters, and the news organizations that touted the “results,” participated in a mass act of entertainment here. Politics is becoming the country’s No. 1 spectator sport, and people wanted a score for this game. The demand for such information was immediate and insatiable. The supply of any worthwhile information on the same topic, meanwhile, will take days to produce. That’s a supply-and-demand mismatch that news organizations just cannot handle anymore: They have to post something now.

Paul J. Lavrakas, president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR), argues that “calling a poll ‘unscientific means it’s unreliable, and when was the last time a journalist was allowed to report, ‘According to an unreliable source…’ ”

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.
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