When 'Some Voters' Means Three
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.
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