It bears repeating: Beware the polls

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Some random thoughts, briefly stated:

  • I read a poll yesterday showing Donald Trump holds a slight lead over Hillary Clinton. Over the weekend, I read one saying Clinton was clinging to a slight lead over Trump. A week ago, nearly every political commentator, even the Trump supporters and sympathizers, was writing or talking as if Clinton’s lead in the polls is so great that Trump will never overcome it. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: View polls with a critical eye. I know they have scientific validity regarding the momentary snapshot of opinion they represent. But they are almost never a reflection of permanent reality.
  • And, as a voter if not as a journalist, it also disturbs me that a candidate’s single appearance in an adversarial bloc’s church, alongside the leader of a country whose people he has insulted for months or on a late-night talk show dismissing a controversy that has dogged her for years can move his or her favorable poll results significantly and immediately. That doesn’t say something scary about polls. It says something scary about voters.
  • In one way or another, a big part of my work day — and that of most of our editors — involves striving to ensure balance and fairness in stories and opinions we present and dealing with people who are certain we are pushing a particular political or social agenda. As I’m writing this, I’m looking at a week’s worth of the Daily Herald front pages — our premier position for capturing the interest and, were we so inclined, influencing the thinking of readers. I see a handful of political stories, a couple crime reports, several reports on issues in specific towns or counties and a daily litany of stories of people accomplishing amazing things. A woman whose hard work and dedication led her to get a high school diploma, complete community college courses and win a scholarship to a major university. A once-troubled teenager whose horizons swelled when he moved to the suburbs, leading eventually to success in Hollywood. A 13-year-old who skipped a grade and is making a name for himself in the study of chemistry. Three suburban residents chosen to be judges in the world’s most elite dog show. A paraplegic crash victim who is achieving success as a diver and teaching other disabled or injured individuals how to do the same. Now, just what again is that message we’re trying to push?
  • We got some complaints about a headline over the weekend in which we called a man killed by police after reportedly vandalizing houses and attacking an officer a “victim.” Our headline writers are re-examining their use of such identifications, which is good. But it also bears noting that when you have only minutes to spare before the press starts and you must make a headline fit in six letters while also not trying to make value judgments about a person whose actions are entirely being defined by others, you sometimes have to try an objectively accurate, if imprecise, alternative to “reported vandal,” “alleged attacker” or “suspected criminal.” That job I just mentioned of striving for balance and fairness can be complicated. But it’s always important.

Jim Slusher, [email protected], is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.