Monday, November 29, 2010

The Case for NJN

The clock is ticking for NJN.

New Jersey Network. The New Jersey Channel. JerseyVision (yes, it was once called that).

Forty years of broadcast television focused on one thing – the state of New Jersey.

It would be a shame to lose that. Yet it is difficult to justify NJN’s state operation as an essential government service. However, NJN – or the existence of some broadcast entity focused on the state – is essential to New Jersey’s identity.

While NJN’s audience is small, the impact of having a visual broadcast medium that keeps tabs on state issues five days a week (barring public holidays, of course) is measured in more than Nielsen ratings. Much has been made of the potential loss of NJN News coverage if the station goes dark on January 1.

Frankly, it’s unique to have a station, public or commercial, devoted to state news. Given the current condition of broadcast media, it’s amazing that NJN has lasted so long in its current form.

Frankly, NJN should have been planning to move away from state government a long time ago. While accusations of government sycophancy in its reporting are unjustified – the quality of journalism is among the highest – the fact that the NJN news team is on the public payroll has allowed those charges to persist.

That move must be made in a few short weeks, unless the governor relents and extends the transition period until a truly viable solution to re-vision NJN is developed.

I, for one, hope he does. And not just because I show up on the airwaves there from time to time. I’ve been a member of NJN since 1994, well before my punditry days. I support NJN not just for its news coverage, but for the focus it brings to all aspects of life in the Garden State.

For a state that lacks a cohesive identity, NJN has helped to bridge the gap between north and south. Growing up in Camden County – NJN went on the air when I was 8 years old – NJN conveyed a sense that my state was more than just a suburb of Philadelphia.

That sense is found in shows like State of the Arts, Images/Imagenes, and Another View. And specials like Our Vanishing Past, Greetings from Asbury Park, and 10 Crucial Days – highlighting the pivotal role New Jersey played in the American Revolution. These programs could only be produced by a public entity that puts the telling of New Jersey’s story at the root of its mission.

I’m no Pollyanna. Both the cultural and the news programming of NJN could use a bit of modernizing. But if NJN ceases to exist entirely, the state will be lesser for it. You can’t find this content anywhere else.

As a pollster, one of my missions has been to bring a focus on New Jersey as a state – what unites us, what divides us, and ultimately, what drives our quality of life. A sense of statewide identity has always been a major struggle for us. A repurposed NJN can contribute to building that identity.

Hopefully, this transition period will be used as an opportunity to build a revitalized NJN.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Media Lessons from 2010 Elections

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

What did we learn from this election?

Two things:
- Internal campaign polls that make their way into the public domain are highly suspect
- Independent - or unaffiliated - voters don’t vote in non-presidential years.

Actually, we already knew both those things. Unfortunately, this sometimes gets forgotten in the quest to report something “sexy.”

So, when next year’s legislative races roll around, here are two rules for New Jersey media to live by.

1. Don’t report internal polls. Or to be more accurate, don’t report numbers from “interested party” memos claiming to be the results of internal polls.


In this past cycle alone, we had one “poll” from Greenberg Quinlan Rosner for the Adler campaign showing a so-called Tea Party candidate with 12% of the vote (he got less than 2%). And another instance where the governor announced that his pollster, National Research, had Anna Little in a dead heat with Frank Pallone (Pallone won by 11 points and the gap was never smaller than 7 points in the Monmouth University Poll).

Campaigns only release internal polls for one reason – to drive the media narrative. Reporting them is akin to giving in-kind campaign assistance.

Moreover, internal campaign polls “released” to the public consistently show a bias in favor of their candidate. Scot Reader analyzed 136 internal polls released publicly and found that 70% of those polls showed the pollsters’ client outperforming the actual results.

That appears to extend to partisan pollsters’ on-the-record public polling as well. For example, the firm headed by Mark Penn (the Clintons’ pollster) conducted polls for The Hill website in 20 House races during the last two weeks of the campaign. Of those, they overstated the Democratic candidate’s performance in 16 races – including 5 cases where they miscalled the eventual winner. They got the victory margin right in 3 races and overstated the Republican candidate’s performance in just one instance. The average partisan bias in those 20 polls was 6.4% Democrat.

For the record, Monmouth University issued 7 House race polls in the closing two weeks with no overall partisan bias - 0.1% Republican, to be exact (3 of our polls understated the Democrat’s performance and 4 understated the Republican’s edge).

Furthermore, internal campaign poll memos may claim to represent accurate poll results, but give absolutely none of the information necessary to judge whether the poll is valid. In a huge bit of irony, a number of campaign pollsters recently issued an open letter decrying the media for reporting independent polls that “contain inadequate information on how they were conducted.”

Putting aside the astounding hypocrisy, they have a point. The media should be equally critical of independent polls. A legitimate polling organization should be willing to reveal the full question wording, description of likely voters, and basic information on the demographic composition of the sample for every election poll it releases.

Of course, that may open a poll to criticism on whether its sample’s partisan composition is accurate. And that’s certainly a debatable point. But I find that such critics routinely overestimate how many independents should be in a sample of likely voters (especially if their preferred candidate is winning the independent vote). Which leads us to rule #2.

2. Stop reporting the large number of unaffiliated registered voters in New Jersey as if it means something.

All too often, media reports describing the electorate include a statement to the effect that the “largest number of voters, though, are not affiliated with either party.”

So what? These people don’t vote unless it’s a presidential year! It would be much more accurate to say that the vast majority - typically about 75% - of voters who will show up in any given off-year election are registered as either Democrats or Republicans. That’s why elections tend to be about turnout more than about winning over undecided voters. Only in very competitive races do truly unaffiliated voters make a difference.

It’s a poorly managed campaign that focuses on all unaffiliated registered voters. So the media shouldn’t either?

That’s just my two cents.