Online technology can help any website use people, not pundits, to drive public debate

My mind spent much of its thoughts this week on the U.S. presidential campaign – specifically, on this week’s, final, debate between John McCain and Barack Obama. What inspires me to write this piece, though, is the disconnect between some of the hired pundits who watched, and reacted to, the debate and the “snap” polls conducted of viewers after the event.

CNN’s John King, for one, called the debate for McCain, only to have his own network’s snap poll show that the viewers, resoundingly, thought Obama the winner. That got me thinking about the opinion sections that many newspapers run in print, and on their websites.

Many now run Web polls where any reader can click to vote which candidate won a debate or to show which position on an issue they support. These polls of self-selected readers can be useful in eliciting discussion, but are worthless in providing good data about the public’s collective opinion on something.

But online polls don’t have to be garbage. The same technology can be tweaked easily to enable a previously selected, demographically balanced, random sample of individuals to log in and record their votes on an issue, such as a local candidates’ debate.

So, why not? Why not provide marry online technology with random-sampling techniques to build a readers’ panel than provides a scientifically accurate measure of your community’s response to important issues? Why ask a hired reporter or pundit to guess the public’s reaction to something when you have the ability to gauge the public’s reaction directly?

Several large news organizations commission public opinion surveys on a regular basis. I’m suggesting something less ambitious than that, something cheaper and faster, using online polling exclusively.

Who won a debate is a great application for this technology because the call of a winner is purely a matter of opinion. There is no empirical evidence that one can tap to render an indisputable judgment on a candidate debate, as one might use a tape measure to determine how far atheletes had launched a shot put, for example.

News organizations still need critics and commentators, people who can put an issue, or a debate performance, into a broader perspective and challenge readers or viewers to consider a different point of view. For things that can be judged with “tape measure” accuracy, such as voting records and scientific research, we also need reporters who make or report those measurements to better inform the public. (These are very different responsibilities than simply reciting partisan talking points, or shilling 24/7 for one party, as too many news pundits now do.)

Technology has made obsolete the need for pundits to tell us how we think. I asked on my Facebook page, “How many times does a Washington pundit get to be wrong before s/he is fired?” (To which Huffington Post political editor Marc Cooper replied: “4,000?”).

I’d love to hear from news organizations that are using online polling, not just for fun, but for serious, random-sample audience reaction. E-mail me via my blog page if you have a story you’d like to share with OJR readers. Or if you’d just like some guidance on how to make this happen. If there’s demand, and I think there should be, I’d be happy to help find a way to get more news organizations using better public opinion polling techniques online.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. Mr. Niles,
    I couldn’t agree more with your assessment. After watching the weekly assemblage of pundits (primarily on CNN which prides itself on having several political analysts squawking at once), I thought, why bother watching the debate when these people can tell me what my thoughts on it are. Naturally, MSNBC and Fox News had completely polarizing polls showing wins for either opponent with Fox giving McCain a landslide victory.

    Pundits have every right to add in their two cents but with today’s technological capabilities, why can’t we have a system that can accurate gauge the public’s reaction? If American Idol can do it, so can the news networks.

  2. i agree with you pundits they cant tell the future where as public can do that if it is online debate many people like to provide lot of inputs there.

  3. says:

    Another awesome post by you.

  4. Another awesome post by you.