MaineToday Media Papers Play Polling Games
Jeannine Guttman didn’t like to cover political polls. Guttman was the editor of the Portland Press Herald back when the Blethen family owned the paper, and her antipathy to reporting on polls was legendary.
In Guttman’s opinion, the results of independent questionnaires from legitimate polling companies rated, at most, a wire-service brief. Campaigns’ internal polls were almost never mentioned, even in lengthy analytical pieces. As for research the Press Herald commissioned itself (of which there was none in the last sad years of the financially challenged Blethen regime), it was more likely to focus on issues than candidates, asking why and how questions, instead of who.
Guttman aspired to a style of high-brow journalism that was elitist with pretensions of intellectualism. She saw her job as informing and leading the ignorant electorate, not reporting on their unfounded opinions on matters best left to their betters to decide.
The result was often long, dull stories that hardly anyone who wasn’t directly involved in the issue bothered to read. That didn’t seem to bother Guttman. What she wanted to avoid in her newspaper was sensationalism, and in her opinion, political polls fell in much the same category as celebrity gossip and sex scandals.
Under the Press Herald’s current owner, Richard Connor’s MaineToday Media, the attitude couldn’t be more different. The Portland paper and its corporate siblings in Augusta and Waterville give polls big coverage. News stories on the campaigns routinely include the latest results from independent pollsters, as well as MaineToday’s own surveys conducted by Critical Insights of Portland. Each new poll merits front-page stories. Surveys conducted for candidates are usually treated slightly more skeptically, although they still get mentioned in columns and briefs.
The exception was a mid-October poll done for independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler, a Connor favorite and the recipient of his company’s endorsement. That survey, which showed Cutler still in third place but closing the gap, was deemed so newsworthy it got a full article and even made the front page in the Morning Sentinel. As my Down East. com colleague Mike Tipping has noted, criticism from other candidates of MaineToday’s decision to do a full story on the Cutler poll was included in the Sentinel and Kennebec Journal versions of the article, but deleted from the Press Herald’s piece.
On October 22, the papers carried a story by staff writer John Richardson on a Critical Insights poll that was not commissioned by MaineToday.
This poll seemed to confirm the Cutler campaign numbers. It also seemed to confirm that Republican Paul LePage had a substantial lead in the governor’s race, a fact that was omitted from the headline and wasn’t noted until the third paragraph.
Even odder was the statement that the poll questioned “registered voters.”
Most legitimate surveys limit their inquiries to a category called likely voters, a group that’s not always easy to sort out. It sometimes takes several questions (a common one is “Where do you vote?”) to determine if the person being called really intends to cast a ballot or is just saying so because no one wants to be thought of as a bad citizen.
Several political commentators raised concerns with MaineToday about relying on numbers from registered rather than likely voters, saying the sampling difference could sway the results significantly. Press Herald editors defended the poll in e-mails to some of those critics, with company political czar Dale Duncan telling one concerned reader, “The story today points out that the poll was taken among ‘registered voters.’ It does not point out that this differs from the Maine Poll's ‘likely voters.’ We probably should have pointed out that distinction, but I don't think not doing it dramatically skews the results.”
Statisticians might disagree, but why get experts involved.
Duncan’s e-mail doesn’t bother to explain why Critical Insights would have switched its approach mid-way through the political season. One reason for that omission might have been that the polling company had apparently done nothing of the sort.
According to an October 23 story in the Bangor Daily News by staff writer Kevin Miller, “MaryEllen Fitzgerald, president of Critical Insights, said the methodology used for both polls [the current one and the previous one for MaineToday] of likely voters was the same.”
The Press Herald and its sister papers never ran a correction or clarification.
This over-eager tendency to report on poll results, even if that reporting is sloppy or skewed, is almost enough to make me nostalgic for Guttman’s lofty approach. At least she produced work that was relatively unbiased and included more of the basic elements of good journalism, emphasizing the “why” and “how,” of stories. In contrast, Connor and company seem to care only about the “who.” And it appears from their selective coverage of candidate polls, only a favored few of the “who.”
Guttman did a disservice to her paper’s readers by ignoring polls, which are a legitimate part of the news. MaineToday errs even more by giving the numbers too much play, while paying too little attention to the factors influencing them.
In a poll of one likely voter — me — they’re both losers.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.