At long last, those Delphic numbers get the scrutiny they deserve.

Media criticism.
Nov. 3 2004 7:31 PM

Demystifying the Exit Polls

At long last, those Delphic numbers get the scrutiny they deserve.

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Because the networks handle the exit polls in such a cloak-and-dagger fashion, not every newscaster who talks about them understands their limitations. The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz captured the naivety of Tucker Carlson, who, on Crossfire, lashed out at what he considered a faulty data dump: "Somebody should reassess exit polling," Carlson said. "It's useless." When Juan Williams threw a similar fit on Fox News Channel about the worthlessness of the exit polls, William Kristol attempted to calm him by noting the obvious: Exit polls are polls, and all polls contain a margin of error.

To that Kristol could have added that no poll is better than the methodology behind it; that exit polls weren't designed to predict winners; and that no state was given to either candidate due to them.

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The good thing about today's uproar is that it's accelerating the much-needed demystification of exit polls that Kinsley commenced. Readers and viewers are asking the news organizations (CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, Fox, and the Associated Press) that own the outfit that produces the exit-poll data, the National Election Pool, questions about how the polls are conducted, how they're used, how accurate they are, and the need for keeping them officially secret on election night even though newscasters blithely lift from them.

The news organizations that subscribe to the NEP results are fielding the same set of questions. Today's online chat with Washington Post Managing Editor Steve Coll provides a savvy, preliminary critique of this year's exit-poll methodology. Here's hoping that Coll has an investigative piece in the works!

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I randomly poll my readership for inspiration. You would not believe the margin of error! Send e-mail to pressbox@hotmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.