NEW YORK (AP) — The Associated Press has updated its guidelines in the wake of the 2016 election to tell its journalists not to use public opinion polls as the sole subject in a political campaign story.
The news organization said Tuesday that it is including a chapter on polls in its influential Stylebook for the first time. The AP’s Stylebook, published since 1953 and periodically updated, is a road map of rules on spelling, language and journalistic style for the company’s journalists. It is also widely used as a blueprint throughout the news industry.
The vast majority of polls in 2016 showed Hillary Clinton beating Donald Trump for president, and she did in the popular vote. But Trump won the electoral college and thus the presidency, and many news organizations were faulted for not seeing that coming.
“The biggest lesson of 2016 is that it reminded us all in a very strong way something we already knew, that a poll is a snapshot of a moment and voters can change their minds,” said David T. Scott, the AP’s deputy manager for operations and former political editor.
Polls are still an important part of news coverage, Scott said. But he said reporting on polls should be accompanied by interviews with voters, discussion of issues and examination of records to give a broader picture of what’s going on. Scott said the AP has relied on this guidance informally but wanted to make it clear to everyone.
“It’s like any type of reporting,” he said. “Talking to only one person or using only one document is a recipe to get yourself into trouble.”
The AP’s new Stylebook entry said that the mere existence of a poll is not enough to make it news.
Noting a “poll frenzy” in political coverage, the AP’s guidelines are a welcome step, said Thomas Patterson, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
Thanks to sheer abundance, polls seem to take over coverage at times, he said. Campaign reporting gets filtered through the polls and candidates not doing well in the numbers can be reflected as failures and have trouble getting their messages across. The overreliance on polls focuses voters’ attention on the margins of a campaign, he said.
“It’s so darn easy,” he said. “The easiest kind of reporting in the world is the ‘who’s up’ and ‘who’s down’ reporting. You don’t even have to be a journalist to do that.”
Voter surveys have their place, particularly if journalists use the details of what they find to discover the mood of the country, he said. Arguably, journalists got lost in the horse race game in 2016 and failed to see the bigger picture of what it was about Trump’s message that was connecting.
The AP had last updated its Stylebook guidance on polling in 2013. Much of the instructions were technical: the type of benchmarks a poll needed to meet before it was considered reliable and how mobile phone or online questioning should be taken into account.
Polls produced by specific candidates or interest groups “should be carefully evaluated and usually avoided,” the AP advised.