News Before its Time: Websites, Blogs Publish Exit Poll Data Tuesday Projecting Kerry Lead
One conclusion from Election Day 2004 is clear: Some new media don't play by the old rules.
The main old rule in force Tuesday night was an agreement reached by TV networks and the Associated Press to withhold overall exit poll results until polls closed.
But by early afternoon, anyone with an Internet connection could click to a variety of weblogs and find reports about exit poll results. Perhaps influenced by the weblog reports, some other media -- including Reuters and Knight-Ridder's Sun-Herald -- followed suit and published exit poll data as well.
By 6 p.m. eastern time, well before polls closed, the Sun-Herald in Biloxi, Miss., published a story on its website reporting: "An early cut of the exit polls conducted by CBS shows Sen. John Kerry ahead as a heavy turnout of voters head to the polls in the presidential election. According to the exit polls, Kerry is up by 4 in Florida, Michigan, and Ohio, and is up by as much as 6 in Wisconsin." That article was published beneath a Sun Herald credit line with no individual byline. (Click here to see screengrab of homepage with headline; click here for screengrab of article)
Even earlier, at 5:17 p.m. eastern time, the wire service Reuters reported that many websites and blogs were publishing exit-poll results before the polls closed. That story noted that exit polls were indicating a Kerry lead, though it didn't cite specific state results. Another story published an hour later (still before poll closings) did cite state exit-poll results.
Slate.com began publishing exit results in the early afternoon. Slate editor Jacob Weisberg told The New York Times that he intended to publish the results because he didn't want to put his website "in the paternalistic position of deciding that our readers aren't mature enough to react in the proper way to truthful information we possess."
Slate, owned by Microsoft, promoted early results as the main item on its homepage during the day. The website was so overwhelmed by visitors that, at times, pages loaded slowly.
In an interesting twist, National Public Radio, which is a content partner with Slate on the radio show "Day to Day," noted on that program that NPR would not report exit-poll data before the polls closed, but informed listeners during the day Tuesday that Slate.com was not operating under those same restrictions.
TV networks mentioned that exit poll results were floating around the Internet, but did not report specifics. After a series of bad calls on election night 2000, TV networks promised Congress that this time around they would not project statewide outcomes based on exit polls until a state's polls had closed.
"Little birdies" leak results
Halfway through election day Tuesday, early exit-poll results were spreading around the Internet on political blogs -- some of which received so much traffic that many of their servers were overloaded.
How did bloggers get the early exit-poll data? Ana Marie Cox, a.k.a. D.C. gossip blogger "Wonkette," who was posting exit data through the day, cited "little birdies" who were sending her information -- and cautioned her readers to take the numbers with "huge tablespoons of salt."
Cox worried that some of the numbers were being filtered through campaign operatives, and admitted they may not be accurate.
The thing about blogs, of course, is that a hot story tends to spread exponentially, so by early evening, the early exit-poll results were all over the blogosphere.
In an intriguing example of early exit-poll results getting out, there were reports of people using news sites' discussion forums to share the data (which they found on blogs) with others -- despite the fact that the news organizations hosting the forums may have been prohibited from publishing the exit-poll news until polls closed.
Christine Masters, new media coordinator for The Times in northwest Indiana, reported that some users of her site's discussion forums had posted exit-poll data copied from blogs in order to share it with other website users. Masters said Tuesday evening that the posts "will remain on the boards until they cycle off," and that her site did not otherwise publish exit-poll numbers prematurely.
A new political-media era
What does all this mean? Well, to astute media watchers, it should come as little surprise that the Internet supported an "information wants to be free" philosophy on election day. Media executives may have intended to avoid influencing the election's outcome by agreeing to control the timing of release of exit polls, but in the Internet era I'm not sure that's possible.
Bloggers, in particular, are loose cannons when it comes to information that established media seeks to control. Mostly independents with no corporate masters to abide -- and often no traditional journalistic training or standards -- bloggers cannot be expected to play by old media rules.
CORRECTION: This article originally stated that the blog Instapundit carried early exit-poll results. It did not.