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In a world of 24-hour reports, sometimes less means more

Saturday, April 7, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:37 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Scott Swafford is the Public Life editor for the Columbia Missourian.

You might have noticed on Election Day that the Missourian did not conduct an exit survey. It might not have been a surprise, however, given last week’s column by my boss, Executive Editor Tom Warhover, in which he wondered aloud and solicited your input about whether we should ask people leaving the polls how they voted and then report the results during the course of the day.

I have to admit we got little feedback. One reader encouraged us to charge ahead. “Whenever possible, newspapers should act to provide as much accurate information as soon as possible.”

A couple of colleagues also weighed in. Fred Vultee argued against it, saying exit surveys can’t possibly be reliable predictors of overall outcome. Carrie Brown, a doctoral student and former Missourian assistant city editor, had a different take. It’s not a matter of whether we do the surveys, she said, but a matter of being transparent about how they should be interpreted.

I had my own arguments for doing the surveys. First, the results are news, plain and simple. They inform people, and they’re interesting. And I’ve never pretended that any previous surveys I’ve done at the Missourian or elsewhere were in any way scientific. Still, they have been surprisingly accurate indicators of how the vote might go. I’m also a competitor. Given our legions of reporters, we can beat our competition over the head with this kind of stuff.

In the end, I decided we’d still send reporters to the polling places, but we wouldn’t conduct a survey. Most compelling for me was Tom’s argument that they discourage voting. When people learn that their candidates or their issues are either way behind or way ahead, they sometimes decide the hassle of going to the polling place is no longer worth it.

That sealed the deal for me. No scoop is worth compromising the integrity of an election.

If you notice nothing else about the Public Life beat at the Missourian, please notice this: We strive in everything we do to empower our readers, to encourage their participation and to give the public the information it needs to self-govern. Publishing an election survey that might cause some to shrug off voting runs against that grain and is simply intolerable to me. We won’t do it again. (Unless some future boss tells me to do it.)


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