One of the best books I ever read was a slim little paperback thing published in 1954 titled “How to Lie With Statistics,” by Darrell Huff. It was required reading in my “Ethics in Journalism” course at the University of Arizona when I attended grad school there in 1978.
I bring this book to your attention because it should also be required reading for anyone who takes any stock in the myriad of public opinion polls tossed in our faces during this dreadful political season.
Huff warns us, “The secret language of statistics, so appealing in a fact-minded culture, is employed to sensationalize, inflate, confuse, and oversimplify,”
Indeed. If you don’t already know this, polls are not the same as elections. News organizations buy polls to give them something to report, regardless of their accuracy. Polls are also useful for earning publicity for the purchasing news organization because every time the poll is cited in another news organization’s story, the purchasing network, station or publication’s name is mentioned…like the CNN/Wall Street Journal Poll, or the Mad Magazine/Hustler Poll. I made that one up. Doesn’t matter if the polls reflect reality. They can always tout the “margin for error,” to explain away the fact the poll’s results could be full of crap.
Political candidates buy polls to convince voters they’re winning. Corporations purchase polls to prove the world can’t live without their products or services.
It’s all in the wording of the questions. Sure, there can be the simple choice of candidate listed. But then the questions become even more leading. Say, “If Donald Trump wasn’t a misogynistic, lying creep, how much more likely would you be to vote for him?” Or. “How much does the fact that Hillary Clinton may very well be indicted affect your decision whether or not to vote for her?”
A company touting, say, its new miracle product might ask consumers identified as ex-felons, “Agree or disagree that your personal well-being would be enhanced with a product that could completely dissolve the serial number from a weapon used in a crime.”
Huff covers that possibility with the declaration “there is terror in numbers.”
You may recall the polls appeared to predict Mitt Romney unseating Barack Obama from the White House four years ago, only to be handily disproven when actual votes were counted. The polls showed that because those cited were “internal polls” taken for Romney, and paid for by Romney’s organization. Gotta keep the customer satisfied, until poor Mitt let his polls blind him into deciding not to write a concession speech “just in case.” Unfortunately for him, the real poll, known as the election, didn’t square with his self-serving survey and Mitt had to concede to the fact he was unprepared to cogently concede.
This is why I completely disregard any sort of poll plastered on the screen or on the page, no matter the subject. I learned long ago, courtesy Darrell Huff’s 144 pages of truth, the margin for error, is the poll itself.
Last Sunday my eyes teared up as I watch the retrospective of Morley Safer’s career on “60 Minutes” on the occasion of his retirement. Who knew he would pass from the scene only a few days later. Oh, my verklempt moment had nothing to do with him packing it in after a million years on the air. It had more to do with the perfection of his writing. Marrying his avuncular narration with video, writing short sentences, masterfully using the medium to tell a compelling and memorable story. For any of us who write for television, Safer was one of a very few to whom we could only hope to emulate, and never quite get there.
My tears were also drawn by the realization the art of television writing is becoming a lost one, as stations and networks rely on extemporaneous live reports that escape thoughtful writing and critical editing. Expediency and penny-pinching come with a high cost. Skilled television reporters and writers are being forced onto the street and replaced with so-called “citizen journalists,” bloggers and social media gadflys who may not have had the experience or training, learning the vows of the holy matrimony between words and video, economy of narration, video storytelling. Much too often I see scripts from wannabees and hacks who bang out words having never looked at a frame of video figuring the editor “will find something to cover that line with.”
I learned the hard way. I started my broadcasting career on the radio and eventually migrated to TV. The first time I handed a poorly written script to an editor who saw no relationship between the available video and my words he spat to me, “you realize, asshole, I don’t have one shot that matches what you wrote! Look at the damn video!” Those words have stayed with me to this day and I’ve passed them along to subsequent offenders.
I was blessed during my 20 CNN years to work mainly with one shooter to the point where we knew each other so we would each come up with lines and shots that matched perfectly, always avoiding the dreaded generic “wallpaper” shots that offer no value to the story.
In my capacity as Head of Digital Communications at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, I’m a constant drumbeat to our video producers to write tight, look at the damn video before writing and make certain pictures and words are in complete lockstep. It’s a continuing battle but one that is in hand.
Which brings me back to the genius of Morley Safer, for whom this marriage was sacred…and one on which he never cheated. The same could be said of the late, wonderful Bruce Morton, whose verbal dexterity was a key driver of my decision to enter broadcast journalism.
Sadly, as the Safers and Mortons pass from the scene, the beautiful art of television journalism is fading from the scene as well…and that brings tears to my eyes.