Split decision? Why not ‘Dewey wins’?

Split decision, my foot!

When Jewish News editorial staffers went home Tuesday evening, exit pollers were saying that Israeli elections were too close to call. We had sent out a JN Now email blast with the headline “Split decision?” because all the editorial sources pointed to a photo finish between the Benjamin Netanyahu-led Likud and the Zionist Union list led by Isaac Herzog.

So how is it possible that a few hours later Likud not only was clearly victorious but had its largest victory since 2003?

I’m angry about this because, for the most part, exit polling in U.S. elections has been accurate. When the pollsters say it’s going to be close, it pretty much is.

What we don’t know – as we give the situation a several-thousand-mile stare from here in the Valley – is why the exit polling was so far off base. Was there a late surge of voters to the polls in Israel? Did the pollsters not know which sample areas were key to reflecting the larger whole of the electorate? Or did the pollsters only look for the results they wanted to get?

The Chicago Tribune’s screaming front page headline on Nov. 3, 1948 – “Dewey defeats Truman” – is the classic example of a headline that got the story wrong. The explanations for why it happened include technical issues (the Trib had to go to press earlier than normal, before meaningful results, even from the East Coast, could be reported) and a genuine editorial antipathy to President Harry S. Truman.

Journalism has been my livelihood for nearly 40 years and I am angry that at this point – given the technological tools and polling savvy that exist – that we can’t do better than what the Trib did in 1948.

There may have been some technical issues at play – Israel is 10 hours ahead of us, for instance, and that may have affected what results journalists were able to report by U.S. deadlines. If that were one of the possibilities, then it should have been reported, in a disclaimer saying something like, “We don’t have enough information to say whether the race is really close or just close in the places where we’ve done exit polling so far.” Responsible reporting would provide those disclaimers, and it would have been the responsibility of the reporters to ask how confident the pollsters were in the results they provided.

But the total turnaround of the outcome from, at best, a narrow victory to a crushing defeat of the opposition calls into question all the reporting and polling. It suggests either that pollsters employed a flawed methodology or that their conclusions were based on bias toward one or the other of the parties in the race.

I’m a consumer of the news just like you and I felt betrayed and angry that the initial reports turned out to be so far off the mark. That’s because I believe that the object of this job is not to go in with a preconceived conclusion and twist facts to fit, but to let the facts lead where they may. Such inaccuracy, regardless of what caused it, creates the perception that journalism is untrustworthy.

Trust is the only currency that journalism has, but it’s built on accuracy and factual reporting. There was no excuse for the reporting on the Israeli elections to be so far off the mark. It was a breach of trust.

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