RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — It’s time for reasonable people in the Internet news business to take a breath and reexamine priorities.
In the frenzied world of instant web news and the pressure to get information out first, caution is being thrown to the wind.
Getting eyeballs first is a worthy goal — but at what cost?
I would rather be right and complete rather than rushing something into electronic print for the world to see. Let the other guys get a scoop if questions remain about a report — or sources are dubious.
The lessons of rushed news were hammered home again during the US elections on Tuesday. What happened proves that exit polling information is a match that is best left for use by adults.
Exit polling data based on interviews of people after they have voted were once the intellectual property of major news organizations. Few people knew the details until the news networks used the information to forecast winners.
Now in the Internet world, the exit data leaks quickly and, unfortunately, can be misinterpreted or spun to people who are more intent on being first than right.
Internet sources, such as Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report, went wild with first rumors and information from exit polls hyping John Kerry showings in North Carolina, South Carolina and other states.
Drudge, for example, set off his siren, trumpeting how encouraged the Democrats were and how the political establishment was rocked. After all, if Kerry was doing well in the Republican bastions of the Carolinas, then how good might he do elsewhere?
After talk radio picked up Drudge’s reports and the bloggers exploded at such sites as National Review, Drudge added a caveat.
The news was based on a sample that drew largely from women voters.
The damage had been done, however.
By rushing incomplete and, ultimately wildly inaccurate, reports out of the Carolinas, the Internet gets a big black eye. Exit polls were hammered — again — for inaccuracies on Tuesday as they were in 2000. The trashing of the Voter News Service and the creation of a new venture between Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International did not prevent early information from missing the facts that President Bush was on his way to a 3-percent edge with more than 55 million votes.
To their credit, the TV networks were cautious about projecting winners in states were margins were close. Especially as the night drew to a close, and the Kerry camp vowed to fight over Ohio, the anchors and their fact checking desks were reluctant to make the kind of statements that led to retractions in 2000.
But on the Internet, the rumors and misinformation raged.
I listened in as Drudge went live on the Sean Hannity show Tuesday afternoon to discuss the exit polling data. He did not acknowledge making a mistake by splashing the misleading information.
I thoroughly enjoy Matt Drudge and the Drudge Report. He’s done a great deal of good work and helped reshape the news world, as have other web sites that form a nice alternative to the mainstream media that has plenty of warts.
But on Tuesday, the Netters were wrong.