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Sick of it, just sick of it

Within a few days this graceless midterm election will be over, and we will be spared, for a brief interval, the bombardment of smarmy, idiotic campaign ads and robotic telephone calls.

But since the 2008 presidential campaign will shift into a higher gear on Wednesday, November 8, we are unlikely to be spared the daily fusillade of political blather that journalists appear incapable of forgoing.

There’s the horse racing lingo, front-runner, dark horse, dead heat, long shot, the home stretch, that survives in journalism even though fewer and fewer people ever go to the track.

At A Capital Idea, my fellow blogger Nicole Stockdale pointed out this week that the tipping point has long since tipped over into cliche.

Last week, I saw a reference in a wire service article to that hoary term, a candidate’s war chest. Those of you who watched Lou Grant a quarter-century ago (and if you did, you were probably a journalist) may recall a sardonic remark by Charlie Hume, the managing editor, played by the late Mason Adams. A green reporter who had been sent out to cover a political campaign for the first time was turning in substandard work. Someone made a weak defense of the work, and Adams, his lip curling, said, "I know. I read it in the story about the war chest."

It was a mark of the hack back then, and it still is.

My own editor is fed up with references to political observers. Political observers, sometimes identified as knowledgeable political observers or seasoned political observers, purvey the conventional wisdom. I’ve often been curious for more detail about the political observers who talk to reporters. People from the candidates’ campaign staffs? Bartenders and taxi drivers, the old standbys for the hack? Other reporters on the bus? The six people the reporter always talks to because they’ll pick up the phone? A digest of the nameless observers quoted in all the other articles that day?

At that, the conventional wisdom provided by political observers is less irritating than the shaky conclusions drawn in articles about opinion polling. Another fellow blogger, FEV at Heads Up, has written extensively about flawed poll stories.

Stories that do not identify the sampling group — likely voters being a somewhat more reliable indicator than the population at large.

Stories that do not identify who sponsored the poll.

Stories that do not take into account the margin of error: If one candidate polls at 52 percent and the other at 44 percent, in a poll with a margin of error of 4 percentage points, it is misleading to say that one candidate is clearly ahead. It’s entirely conceivable that the two could be tied at 48 percent each.

Stories that cite phone-in polls or Internet polls, which are worthless because the results come from a self-selected population.

See his October 22 entry, "How not to screw up poll reporting."

Many articles about opinion polls are as useful as predictions of the severity of the coming winter, as determined by the thickness of the bands on woolly bear caterpillars.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:26 AM | | Comments (3)


Apologies if you checked earlier today and found this post hard to follow. Typepad scrambles text in unpredictable ways, and I sometimes don't notice immediately what has happened.

Congratulations, John. You've managed to very concisely summarize just about everything that is wrong with mainstream political reporting. I don't suppose you're willing to bet that it won't return in the next cycle? I'm sick of it, too. So what are we going to do about it? Is it more than a coincidence that the decline in newspaper circulation has accelerated in proportion to the rise in shallow horse-race political coverage?

When you describe entries from certain days, why don't you link to them? It's not hard, and that's one of the big benefits to this whole Internet thing.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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