A number of Internet sites and even one mainstream media outlet have argued for posting (and in some cases, already posted) early exit poll results today.

Here’s why they shouldn’t.

The early release of numbers bouncing around cyberspace like pinballs puts tremendous pressure on the television networks to rush to judgment. Naming the winner of the race, first, after all, is the scoop of Election 2004. The desire to be first, and attract the most eyeballs (which undoubtedly has more than a little to do with why Internet outlets are so eager to run exit poll results), runs deep in the news business.

TV networks, after all, pay for exit polls in order to help them predict the winner before all the votes are counted. As those polls leak, the networks’ advantage over other outlets narrows — and the pressure grows to declare a winner as quickly as possible.

While the networks are loudly declaring their intentions to avoid the debacle of 2000, it’s undeniable that the advent of the Internet has put a tremendous amount of pressure on journalists to move with stories before they’re ready. New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller told Howard Kurtz last week that leaks posted online about its story on a missing cache of explosives in Iraq drove the paper to run it sooner than it had expected (and may explain why some crucial details were missing or received little emphasis).

And the media’s mistakes during election night 2000 undeniably affected perceptions of who the winner was (and who the winner should have been). We’d all have been better off if news organizations had waited for actual returns, rather than declaring (and then un-declaring, and re-declaring) a winner based on inferences from exit polls.

Moreover, there are potentially all kinds of problems with these early exit poll numbers. Democrats and Republicans may not vote in representative numbers early in the day; those numbers may not take into account the millions of voters who cast their ballots early; and presented alone, outside the context of other information about voting behavior in past years, likely voter turnout, etc. these numbers lose much of their value.

The fact remains that we’ll only know the winner once all the votes are counted (or at least, all the votes that are going to be counted are counted). Any conclusions reached before then are pure speculation — informed speculation, perhaps, but speculation nonetheless. Here’s hoping that the final legacy of the Internet in campaign 2004 isn’t another 2000-style media mess.

Bryan Keefer

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Bryan Keefer was CJR Daily’s deputy managing editor.