Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Why Is the WSMV Convention Center Poll News Only on WSMV?

Posted By on Tue, Jan 12, 2010 at 8:20 AM

click to enlarge wsmv.png
WSMV Channel 4 released a poll last Friday showing tepid (to put it politely) support for a new convention center. Coming as it did just over a week before a final Metro Council vote on the Music City Center's (MCC) financing, the poll feels like a pretty significant item of news injected late in the public conversation about this large project.

But unless you watch Channel 4 (or read Pith or other blogs), you would know nothing about the poll because other news organizations in the city have ignored the WSMV-commissioned survey. Four days have gone by since the poll came out, and there has been no concrete mention of its findings in either The Tennessean or The City Paper nor on the news websites of any of the other local TV stations. Only the Nashville Business Journal picked up on the poll, six paragraphs into a story posted Monday.

(Update: A squib about the poll appeared on The Tennessean's political blog Monday afternoon, but still no mention in any of the paper's news stories in print or online.)

Is it responsible journalism when a newsroom ignores a significant poll on an important issue that a local news competitor has commissioned? Is there an obligation to report something even when that means giving a rival newsroom credit for making that news happen? Short answers: no and yes.

On Sunday, two days after the poll became public, The Tennessean ran a story under the headline "Public Weighs In on Nashville Convention Center", which discussed public meetings on the project but made no mention of the WSMV poll. On Monday morning, The City Paper ran an opinion piece by an outside contributor that alluded in its opening sentence to public opinion polls by television stations, but no specifics or results appeared in that column or anywhere else.

Interim executive editor Liz Garrigan at SouthComm, which publishes The City Paper (and the Scene), tells Pith "there was no active effort on the part of The City Paper to ignore the poll." She adds that the CP is typically a Monday-through-Friday online news operation, so the poll's release late Friday accounts in part for the lack of coverage. Garrigan says a link to a Friday Pith post regarding the poll could and should have been added under "top stories" on the CP website, as the paper often does when breaking news is reachable through other SouthComm blogs such as PostPolitics and PostBusiness.

Tennesseean editor Mark Silverman declined to return a call seeking comment on his paper's approach to the poll story.

The dearth of poll coverage by other newrooms means Nashvillians won't encounter reactions to the poll except via Channel 4 and its website. Predictably, MCC opponents are describing the low level of MCC support in the poll as consistent with what they've been sensing in the public mind, while supporters are attacking the poll's methodology on sampling and question wording grounds.

Do critics of the poll's methodology have a point? The survey was conducted for WSMV by Crawford Johnson & Northcott (CJ&N), an Iowa-based research firm that doesn't really have a reputation for political polling in the public sphere because most of its survey work product is proprietary for clients. WSMV has, however, used CJ&N to poll on several occasions in the past with pretty good results, including a 2007 poll of Nashville's mayoral race and a 2009 poll on the English-only referendum.

The poll's sampling technique appears reasonable. The sample size of 401 is the same as in those two earlier polls and is in the ballpark of what polling experts tell us would be appropriate for this kind of survey. A larger sample, closer to 500, would yield a smaller margin of error, but this one isn't bad. This was a live telephone poll done by actual human interviewers, not an automated survey, it was appropriately targeted at registered voters, and it yielded (according to CJ&N) a sample that corresponds with the county's demographics.

The most pointed criticism aimed at the poll by MCC supporters targets the wording of its questions. To be sure, item wording is a more subjective affair - as much art as science -- than sampling. The critical question was worded in this way: Do you support Metro Nashville's efforts to finance and build a new Music City Center convention facility? On its face this seems like a concise and truthful statement of what the city is proposing to do - finance and build a convention center.

But MCC supporters quarrel with the word "finance," arguing that its use in the question without further explanation implies a center funded by taxpayers intead of by (mostly) taxes on visitors. "I just think that the way the question was crafted would always get the answer that it got," Convention Center Authority chair Marty Dickens told WSMV.

When polling issues (as opposed to candidates in an electoral race), some pollsters prefer more explanatory questions that remind respondents of the arguments on each side before asking the question. It is plausible that the spare phrasing in the WSMV poll coaxed some opposition responses, although it would be a stretch to conclude that it explains the vast gulf between support and opposition in the poll's result. For his part, CJ&N's Bruce Northcott tells Pith that he stands by the question design work of his firm's PhD social scientists. Objectivity in item wording is always the goal, says Northcott, but "you'll always get somebody to pick it apart."

A curious thing about the WSMV poll was the timing of its initial release, during a Friday early evening newscast. Friday afternoon is where news stories typically go to die--it's known in political circles as the "document dump" time when public officials like to make controversial things public in the hopes that as few people as possible are paying attention. So why would WSMV, sitting on a big story over which it has exclusive control, choose a Friday afternoon release for this potentially high-impact poll? WSMV news director Matthew Hilk tells us that he wasn't specifically planning to run it on Friday, but did want it to get it out there before all of the MCC-related events this week, including last night's special public hearing.

We asked WSMV's Hilk what he thought about his station's poll being ignored by his competitors. His diplomatic reply: "We're an independent voice and it's their prerogative to be an independent voice as well." And if the roles were reversed, would Channel 4 run a story reporting on a poll like this one commissioned by a rival station? "In some cases we would and in some cases we wouldn't," replied Hilk. "It depends on the situation."

Hilk is being coy and circumspect, but on this occasion the WSMV poll is inescapably a significant item of local news interest as the convention center outcome draws near. News organizations everywhere (except here?) report on polls commissioned by rival news organizations all the time, as well they should when the poll is newsworthy. In this case, Nashville's editors are doing their readers and viewers a disservice by not reporting on the Channel 4 poll, which adds a meaningful data point to the current discussion about the MCC project.

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