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Bloggers Let Poll Cat Out of the Bag

By Cynthia L. Webb
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 3, 2004; 10:39 AM

In the thick of a historic and obsessively watched Election Day, bloggers shook up the mainstream media by providing an early look at election exit polls, proving once and for all their influence not only in the coverage of politics but perhaps in the electoral process itself.

The early-afternoon posts of the numbers -- purportedly based on the data that media organizations get from people who have actually voted, which the media then use to predict outcomes and make correlations between votes and issues -- indicated bad news for President Bush, stoking early-afternoon chatter that grew to a roar and sparked a stock market sell-off.

_____  Reporter's Query _____
reporter's query What's been your experience with electronic voting today? If you live in Maryland, Virginia or the District and are willing to be quoted, please send your story, along with your name and contact information, to post.com reporter Robert MacMillan.


_____About Filter_____
Filter looks at the day's top technology news through snapshots and analysis of what the world's media outlets are covering. Washingtonpost.com's new Mon.-Fri. feature is penned by technology reporter Cynthia L. Webb. If a technology story breaks, a company falters or triumphs, or there's a new trend in technology, Filter wants you to know about it.

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Never mind that the posts were at times thinly sourced or turned out to be flat wrong. As the networks and other media standbys played it safe, people flocked to blogs to get a glimpse at early polling data and early calls. The traffic alone further boosted the street cred of blogs. The National Review's Corner, Daily Kos, Drudge Report and Wonkette.com were among those out of the box early with the data.

"Politically oriented Web logs began posting leaked exit poll data early yesterday afternoon, influencing media coverage of the race and underscoring the new medium's continued emergence as an opinion-shaper," the Wall Street Journal said. "The willingness of the individuals who run the Internet sites, known as blogs, to post the data as soon as they could obtain them -- by whatever means -- gave them a leg up on the nation's mainstream news organizations, which were bound by their own restrictions on disseminating exit-poll information. But the uncertain outcome of the election late into the night underscored how the high-profile new medium could ultimately prove vulnerable to the same gaffes that bedeviled the mainstream media four years ago."

More from the article: "Shortly before noon, several blogs began posting leaked exit-poll data showing that Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry was winning in key states such as Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio. Many popular blogs saw their traffic soar as hundreds of thousands of additional visitors scoured them for clues about the election. Several sites -- Joshua Micah Marshall's left-leaning TalkingPointsMemo.com and Glenn Reynolds's conservative-leaning InstaPundit.com -- crashed repeatedly because of unusually heavy traffic," the Journal said. "The numbers helped shape early media coverage of Election Day and triggered a sell-off in the stock market by investors concerned about the implications of a Kerry victory. As the day wore on, however, the more detailed numbers that began appearing on network and cable television news programs made clear that the picture was far murkier, with Ohio being too close to call and several networks projecting President Bush as the winner in Florida."

But the article noted the importance of the blog race against the mainstream media outlets: "Many polling experts had warned that such shifts were almost inevitable since the bloggers were posting exit poll numbers hours before they could be considered reliable. ... The attention paid to blogs last night highlighted their increasing prominence in the worlds of politics and media."
The Wall Street Journal: Brash Blogs Grab the Lead Again With Early Reports on Exit Polls (Subscription required)

The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz latched onto the blog exit poll brouhaha in his review of election TV coverage: "The networks and the Associated Press began receiving exit-poll data in the early afternoon, and Slate.com and the Drudge Report touted the figures as showing Kerry with a slight edge in Florida and Ohio and significant leads in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan. But the tone of the television coverage began to subtly turn against Kerry as the night wore on and it appeared that the senator was not doing as well in the key battlegrounds as the exit polls had indicated. In an echo of 2000, Lisa Myers reported on MSNBC that the Bush camp saw 'a significant flaw in the exit polls.' Kerry spokesman Mike McCurry sounded less than confident when he told [ABC anchor Peter Jennings] that 'we're not throwing in the towel' on Florida. 'Somebody should reassess exit polling. . . . It's useless,' said CNN's Tucker Carlson." For the record, Florida went to President Bush. Ohio is still officially in limbo land.

The Los Angeles Times gave the match point to blogs, but noted the accuracy of exit poll posts was often suspect: "Overflowing with early, and sometimes wildly misleading, exit poll numbers, Web logs became the Internet's own battleground state on Tuesday, as the bloggers fought even among themselves in reporting the kind of preliminary data television avoids before polls close. Some blogs were stuck between an ideological rock and a news-gathering hard place. Partisan blogs like the conservative National Review Online ... found themselves caught in a spirited debate about whether the early numbers they posted were hurting their preferred candidate, President Bush. The readers of liberal blogs such as Daily Kos ... staged an online pep rally celebrating early numbers showing Sen. John F. Kerry ahead in many swing states. As they have in the past, television networks and newspaper websites refrained from reporting early exit poll results, but the Internet adheres to little such restraint. Hours after the first polls opened on the East Coast, the Internet bustled with preliminary voter surveys, sparking an angry online debate among the wi-fi wonks over their posting and their significance. The attribution for (and authenticity of) these numbers was murky."
The Washington Post: TV News Plays It Safe, Up to a Point (Registration required)
The Los Angeles Times: Exit Polls Bog Down The Blogs (Registration required)

The Wall Street Journal Online weighed in with its own coverage of the exit poll scrapping in cyberspace, noting in a blog roundup: "Bloggers are crowing about yet another way the Internet is scooping TV, this time by the networks' own Web sites. There has apparently been a discrepancy between the caution typifying TV-news projections and the raw exit-poll data available on some of the networks' Web sites, as noted by the blogger NewDonkey.com and a reader on DailyKos.com. Just before the 10 p.m. poll closings, most of the TV networks were projecting a lead in the electoral vote for President Bush over Sen. John Kerry, but they weren't ready to call the crucial states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. They were only reporting figures based on precincts that had already turned in voting results. But surfers could find exit-poll data on CNN.com and MSNBC.com for each state where the polls had already closed. The tallies were separated by gender, but it wasn't tough for NewDonkey.com to calculate what the overall numbers showed, based on exit-poll numbers showing the breakdown of all voters by gender."
The Wall Street Journal Online: Reporters, Pundits File Real-Time Web Updates (Subscription required)

The Baltimore Sun cut to the chase on the potential impact of the bloggers on exit poll reporting. In a nutshell, caution was thrown out the window. "The mainstream electronic media, still bruised from making bad calls in the 2000 election, ceded the dirty work to the new kid yesterday, allowing Internet news sites and Web logs to rule political reporting for much of the day -- for better or worse," the Sun reported. "By early afternoon, online bloggers had started listing early, and sometimes questionable, exit poll information that showed Sen. John Kerry leading President Bush in the three key swing states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. By early evening, before most polls closed and the TV networks resumed reporting, a few blogs and news Web sites had called the race for Kerry. ... The bloggers were filling a void left by news outlets reluctant to speculate, though much of their information was based on rumors or postings of their peers, causing some others concern. They are 'putting up exit polls and things like that, and they're based on almost nothing,' said Ann Althouse, a blogger and law professor from Madison, Wis. 'They seem to want to affect things in bizarre ways. What the good bloggers, the reasonable bloggers, are trying to do is keep mainstream media honest.'"
The Baltimore Sun: Bloggers Rule the Day in Earlier Reporting


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