When Headlines Turn Bad

USA Today splashed the following five-column banner headline across its front page today, in type so big you’d have thought we’d landed on Mars, or at least gotten another look at Janet Jackson’s breast:

Poll: Bush leads by 8 points

Wow! Eight points! That sure does seem like a lot. There’s one problem, though — and it comes in the fourth paragraph of USA Today’s own piece: “Even [Bush’s] lead among likely voters is on the cusp of the survey’s margin of error.”

In other words, “Now that we think about it, don’t take our headline or lede too seriously; neither one means much.” As the piece notes, there was indeed a swing in Bush’s direction from the previous CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll — but considering the whole “cusp of the survey’s margin of error” thing, clearly not enough to warrant such prominent play in the paper.

Consider the headline CNN put on its story about the selfsame poll: “Presidential Race Still Tight.” It seems that when the two media organizations looked at the same poll (their own), USA Today decided to trumpet a blowout, while CNN determined, accurately, that things weren’t that simple.

This is an expectations game, after all — as The Note put it this morning, “If more people (regardless of whom they support) don’t start telling pollsters that they believe Kerry WILL win, he probably can’t.” There’s no doubt that it’s the job of candidates Bush and Kerry each to try to create an aura of inevitability around their candidacy. But it’s not USA Today’s job to help them — not unless its polling actually gives it a reason to.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.