Debating the Poll Position

By Michael Getler
Sunday, May 1, 2005

Two stories last week raised interesting challenges about how The Post presents "news" and "analysis" to its readers.

The one that attracted the most critical mail, by far, was the lead story -- the one at the top, right-hand side of the front page -- on Tuesday headlined, "Filibuster Rule Change Opposed." A smaller headline beneath the main one said: "66% in Poll Reject Senate GOP Plan to Ease Confirmation of Bush's Judicial Nominees."

The story, by Post polling chief Richard Morin and top political reporter Dan Balz, was based on the latest Post-ABC News poll of 1,007 randomly selected adults nationwide. The first sentence said, "As the Senate moves toward a major confrontation over judicial appointees, a strong majority of Americans oppose changing the rules to make it easier for Republican leaders to win confirmation of President Bush's court nominees," according to the poll. The lead closely followed the wording of the actual poll question, which asked whether respondents would "support or oppose changing Senate rules to make it easier for the Republicans to confirm Bush's judicial nominees."

A few dozen readers wrote to complain about the wording of the question, which they felt was certain to produce a negative result, and to suggest different wording, such as: "Should a president's judicial nominees be assured of a floor vote, and approved if a majority of senators vote in favor, as required under the Constitution?" I'll get back to this.

The second article attracted little reader response but caught my eye. It appeared Thursday on Page A6 under an "Analysis" label. The headline said, "DeLay Is Likely to Be Found Culpable." A smaller headline below said, "Experts Weigh Potential Defense." This story, by reporter Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, looked at the ethics challenges facing Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), the House majority leader, as various legal specialists assessed his situation and the history of such challenges in Congress.

I thought both of these articles were informative, and I respect the professionalism of The Post's polling operation led by Morin. But I do not believe that stories based on opinion polls should be placed in the lead position of a "news" paper. I've made this point in a couple of earlier columns, so it's clear editors don't agree with me.

What most disturbed me about both stories was the headline and display rather than the content. Both headlines, plus the prominence of the poll story, convey at that first, important glance, a sense that this is The Post talking and that the paper has sort of settled these issues for you.

It can be argued that The Post is simply not pulling any punches as to where its polling and analysis are leading. And headline writers often have very few words to convey nuance and even attribution. But in today's hyper-partisan environment, greater care in presenting stories stands a better chance of informing, rather than alienating, more readers. The Post, on Friday, published a correction about the headline on the DeLay story.

Readers who challenged the fairness of the polling story, and the question dealing with judicial nominees, made several points. The word "filibuster" was not used in the question, although it was in the headline. They noted that the question was No. 36 in the poll, although it became the lead of the story, and that it came after a series of what some viewed as "setup" questions dealing with such issues as the use of religious beliefs in political decision making. And they noted there were more Democratic respondents (35 percent) than Republican (28 percent). But mostly they challenged the way the question was asked.

Morin defends the wording this way: "The debate over judicial selection currently raging is political and it is deeply partisan. It is a fact that Republicans are trying to change the rules to make it easier to get a vote on the contested Bush nominees. To withhold that information about the partisan cast of the debate would bias the result by completely removing the issue from its context." Also, he says, "no poll conducted this year has found majority or even plurality support for ending the filibuster -- just the opposite has been the consistent finding."

For example, a Newsweek poll two weeks ago used language very similar to that proposed by critical readers. It said: "U.S. Senate rules allow 41 Senators to mount a filibuster -- refusing to end debate and agree to vote -- to block judicial nominees. In the past, this tactic has been used by both Democrats and Republicans to prevent certain judicial nominees from being confirmed. Senate Republican leaders, whose party is now in the majority, want to take away this tactic by changing the rules to require only 51 votes, instead of 60, to break a filibuster. Would you approve or disapprove of changing Senate rules to take away the filibuster and allow all of George W. Bush's judicial nominees to get voted on by the Senate?" The poll found that 57 percent disapproved of changing the rules and 32 percent approved.

The Associated Press reported last week that a private Republican poll showed that 51 percent of Republicans opposed stripping away the filibuster. A Wall Street Journal-NBC News Poll in early April showed 41 percent of Republicans opposed.

A big front-page photo Thursday also drew criticism from some readers, and from some Post staffers as well. It showed the 9-year-old boy who had been abducted by his father and witnessed a standoff with police in Alexandria that ended with police shooting and killing the father. "Does this poor kid not have enough problems without being pasted so graphically in the newspaper?" one writer asked. This was, undeniably, a very powerful, and possibly exclusive, news photo by The Post's Ricky Carioti. There was a lot of internal discussion. But editors decided that the picture was the news and should not be withheld. I would have voted that way as well.

Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail

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