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When 'Some Voters' Means Three

By Andy Alexander

The Post yesterday gave prominent play to a story about disenchantment among Virginians who supported Barack Obama last November. Unease with the president’s economic policies, it said, are influencing the strategies of those running for governor of the commonwealth.

But about a dozen readers complained that the thrust of the story isn’t buttressed by the reporting. They noted that only three would-be voters are quoted. And while the story said that national polls show Obama’s approval rating has slipped since he took office, it cited no survey data to suggest that is the case in Virginia.

I think the readers have a point.

The problem may be with how the story is structured. It devotes much more space to the concerns of the three citizens than it does to how the gubernatorial campaigns are adjusting their campaigns in reaction to the president’s policies.

And several readers said they felt misled by the story’s headline (“Is Race for Governor More About Obama?”) and its subhead (“Some Voters Who Backed President Disillusioned Over Economic Pledges”). To them, these promised a story showing widespread disaffection with the president and his agenda.

The top of the story, by government reporter Sandhya Somashekhar, focused on Prince William County real estate agent Chris Ann Cleland, who voted for Obama but now believes his economic policies will harm the middle class. “He’s just not as advertised,” Cleland is quoted as saying. “Nothing’s changed for the common guy. I feel I’ve been punked.”

The story then notes: “There is no empirical evidence at this point in Virginia’s race for governor showing that huge numbers think like Cleland and will respond by sending a message to Washington. But Obama’s policies are nonetheless having immediate consequences in the campaign as the candidates adjust their strategies to account for the president’s controversial agenda, which has overshadowed many state issues.”

So if there’s no empirical evidence, readers complained, that leaves a story based on quotes from only three Virginians.

Both Somashekhar and her editor, Steven Ginsberg, said the story was not intended to draw conclusions about Obama’s political standing in Virginia. Rather, they said today, it was about how the campaign strategies for Democrat R. Creigh Deeds and Republican Robert F. McDonnell are shifting based on the perception of the public’s unease over Obama’s economic policies as shown in national polls.

“The story is framed in a way to say that the campaigns are reacting to this,” Ginsberg said.

But of the story’s 30 paragraphs, only eight address the strategy question. Most of the story deals with the views of Cleland, a neighbor who voted for Obama but “leans Republican,” and the third woman who has experienced economic hardship but said she expects to vote for Deeds.

Somashekhar said she, too, has heard from a number of readers. “Most of them have been unhappy with the story,” she said, although a few were favorable.

There are recent Virginia-specific polls that purport to offer an accurate gauge of Obama’s standing in the state, but The Post has chosen not to publicize them out of concern about their methodology.

That’s wise. As explained in a recent ombudsman’s column, The Post is taking steps to tighten controls its reporting on polls.

Readers wouldn’t have complained if the lead of the story and the headline had unambiguously captured what Somashekhar and Ginsberg said was the central point: Candidates for Virginia governor are adjusting their campaign strategies in response to national polls showing slippage in President Obama’s approval ratings.

After spending the first part of the story on the shifting campaign strategies, it could have moved on to the three women as examples of Virginians who had supported Obama but now have concerns about his policies.

By Andy Alexander  | August 6, 2009; 3:20 PM ET
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Let me see if I can get this Correct. The Post runs a story about a Poll that was taken concerning the up and coming Virginia Governor's Race. The POLL consisted of "3" THREE PEOPLE.

Why would the Washington Post give any POLLSTER any space to give the results of a "3" THREE PERSON POLL? I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around this entire EVENT, and I'm sure your other readers will have the same problem.

What would be the main topic of the story, when you're getting input from "3" THREE PEOPLE? That's not a POLL, that's table Conversation. Ok, I get the part about President Obama's National Poll numbers. Let's hope the National Poll was not Conducted like the POLL in Question here.

The Point I am trying to get to is, Why the POLLSTER, and the WASHINGTON POST, are "MISINFORMING THE READERS.
This "BOGUS POLL", should have never been give any "PLAY", as you put it. Who is the POLLSTER, and what is his RELATIONSHIP, to the WASHINGTON POST?
Why would the Washington Post "DISTORT" a RATING POLL about the "PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, one day before the President was to give a speech at a Campaign Rally, for the Democratic Candidate?

Mr. Alexander, I may be "WRONG", but I foresee "THE WASHINGTON POST", having some very serious "PROBLEMS", in the very near Future. Let's hope The Post can "SURVIVE" this "PUBLIC TRIAL".

Posted by: austininc4 | August 6, 2009 7:45 PM | Report abuse

Make it 4. And you can add my wife. Let's see, that brings the total to 5, right?

Posted by: PaulShultz1 | August 6, 2009 10:23 PM | Report abuse

Make it 4. And you can add my wife. Let's see, that brings the total to 5, right?

Posted by: PaulShultz1 | August 6, 2009 10:23 PM

Five more and you'll have to take off your shoes to count.

Posted by: angelos_peter | August 7, 2009 1:34 AM | Report abuse

PaulShultz1 writes:

"Make it 4. And you can add my wife. Let's see, that brings the total to 5, right?"

Oh, well! That's a story then! There's a scientific sampling if ever I saw one.

I'm glad the ombudsman discovered the obvious, that once again the Washington Post gave a Neoconservative right wing spin to some cherry-picked anecdotes so as to bolster the right wing view.

Polls show that Obama still has widespread support, despite it shifting as time passes, which is entirely normal.

You'd never know this reading the Washington Post however, which goes looking for anecdotes to support their fantasies about how everyone has abandoned him and joined the ranks of the teabaggers.

Posted by: BillEPilgrim | August 7, 2009 1:49 AM | Report abuse

Congratulations Andrew, I think you are finally coming to see my point about the poor structure and reporting style in the Post. Stories that simply reflect the current views of its reporters rather than being based on facts.

Reporting is more than just a headling and a couple of quotes or unnamed sources to buttress the scuttlebutt reporters have heard on the street. It requires facts and context. This one only seemed to have context.

Posted by: krush01 | August 7, 2009 5:56 AM | Report abuse

krush01, exactly!! it is great having Andrew to get this out there. My last email to him was concerning the use of the word "may" in a headline. May is a supposition and makes the story sound gossippy and very much the "view" of the writer, not news. and the readers commented as to why this was news? who cares? etc... the story ? The surgeon general nominee "may" have a clash because she's Catholic. Like the Prez would nominate a democrat who hadn't already seperated church and state. But the sad thing was, when wapo had a "chat" with managing editors and I questioned them about this, they actually supported the use of a supposition in a news story headline. It should have been opinion!!! Hopfully, the longer Andrew is with wapo, the better it will get.

Posted by: katem1 | August 7, 2009 8:45 AM | Report abuse

One thing is important and then it's always something else.

Posted by: Dermitt | August 7, 2009 9:51 AM | Report abuse

It is all about sloppy journalism. "Man on the street" stories qualify right there anyway, since you can always find quotes to fit the story you want to write. And howlers such as "most Americans in a poll" which turns out to be of 432 people, and the "most" means 57 percent. Send the kids back to school.

Posted by: ggreenbaum | August 7, 2009 10:56 AM | Report abuse

The Post endorsed Deeds in the primary. The Post will endorse Deeds in the general. So, reporting on the fact that things aren't going so well for Deeds right now (he trails McDonnell significantly in recent polls) earns a rebuke from Democrat readers and the Post ombudsman.

Posted by: tresangelas | August 7, 2009 1:49 PM | Report abuse

How many rounds of buyouts have there been now, four? Or five? Hard to keep track. And to compensate: corner-cutting, superficiality, distortion, and tailoring stories to fit preconceived notions.

On, the estimable James Fallows, upon returning from three years in China, makes this observation on the New York Times and the Post he remembers compared with the newspapers he sees now:

"The NYT, for all its travails, is a recognizable version of the publication I'd previously known. Personality, depth, world-view, tone. The poor Washington Post is not. Laying off -- that is, buying out -- so many reporters who knew so much about their topics has had a more profound effect than I would have guessed. (Locus classicus: Tom Ricks on defense.) And the resulting paper seems more obviously desperate to try anything that will draw attention in this new age."

Sad but true.

Posted by: Viewfinder | August 7, 2009 2:49 PM | Report abuse

Also worth noting, perhaps the saddest observation of all by Fallows:

"I've thought of the Post as my hometown paper for years and feel as if I've come back to see a family member looking suddenly very ill."

He has plenty of company.

Posted by: Viewfinder | August 7, 2009 2:59 PM | Report abuse

The site where Fallows' post can be found is Earlier, "the" was inadvertently left out. Sorry.

Posted by: Viewfinder | August 7, 2009 3:06 PM | Report abuse

What's the difference between a Post story with 3 identified sources and a story with an anonymous White House source? All depends on whether you agree with the content.

Posted by: PaulShultz1 | August 7, 2009 9:30 PM | Report abuse

Obama's ratings are still 30+% more favorable than Congresses.

These poll numbers change almost as fast as the price of gas at the pump!

Blaming Obama for congresses lack of action,
is like blaming a parent for a kids refusal to study, they can't force any one to do anything, they can only hope that they see the value of their suggestions!

Posted by: victorlove1 | August 8, 2009 8:27 PM | Report abuse

"There are recent Virginia-specific polls that purport to offer an accurate gauge of Obama’s standing in the state, but The Post has chosen not to publicize them out of concern about their methodology."

Does that mean the Post didn't like the results? We all read other sources, you know? And the last several WaPo commissioned national polls were out of step with other national polls by several points.
It tough printing news that gets your Obamalovin' readers angry, but the truth is the truth.
Even Milbank is grudgingly admitting that Obama's polls ain't nothing to write home about and haven't been for awhile. And he's sliding fast.
You're losing what little credibility you had left after the last 8 years...

Posted by: parkbench | August 10, 2009 12:36 AM | Report abuse

Here's the concern:
Go to the weather reports . . . they are always about the storm nobody can quite yet see. They are champing at the bit to spot a trend. In this article, the reporter did the same thing. How amazing it would be in the broad support Obama received last fall turned out to be false, and that there is a new storm brewing that only a few people see, but a reporter took time to track . . . just you wait world, and you'll see how alert we were.

But is this journalism? My advice . . . slow down. There is perhaps another story . . . how is campaign rhetoric adapting to some harsh realities . . . the recession/depression, unemployment, healthcare, the war we should never have started, and so on. The story is, "Yes I know . . . but we've had some forced options."

Again, I am glad you are there. But you are not supposed to be the voice of the Post . . . where are the editors, the other reporters, and the columnists who write about everything but the Post?

Take care,

Posted by: Praytell1 | August 10, 2009 10:57 AM | Report abuse

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