A cautionary tale for the less-than-invincible media

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Today, after the Iowa caucus votes, most of the talking heads are chattering about how Republican presidential candidate Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump thought biker rally crowd would resemble ‘I Have a Dream’ speech Weld wins Libertarian nomination for VP Dems to Clinton: Ignore Trump on past scandals MORE lost his "aura of invincibility."

What invincibility? He has never won an election.

The "aura" was one he had been bullishly projecting, which the follow-the-crowd media had been happy to promote — if for no other reason than to sell newspapers or attract clicks. "The polls, the polls," one reporter responded when I questioned why he thought Trump would win Iowa, the GOP nomination and go on to become president.

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Part of the problem with the media coverage of this White House race has been an overreliance on opinion polls (aside from an eagerness to boost Trump because it makes the contest more exciting and is good for online traffic). And this despite the recent example — and cautionary note — of the embarrassment of the pollsters on the other side of the Atlantic during the 2015 U.K. general election. The polls there were hopelessly wrong, never having the Conservatives actually winning a parliamentary majority, which they did resoundingly.

Many U.S. media outlets have been happy to cite polls with abandon, even though many organizations have been polling meager samples of voters — some less than 1,000 and many just over 500.

Pollsters like to claim that they can use smaller samples nowadays because they have refined their techniques. Really? The major reason for the smaller polling samples rests more with the difficulty of identifying representative voters in this post-landline age.

One important guideline, surely, for covering U.S. presidential elections is to harbor a healthy skepticism about polls, especially national ones. The contest for the White House consists of 50 state-wide contests. Most national polls were giving the race to then-Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in the final days of his 2004 face-off with President George W. Bush, and we know how that ended.

No doubt, the pollsters will argue today that Trump lost and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) did better than predicted because of late unpredictable surges by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rubio. That is normally their excuse. But shouldn't polling be able to pick that up, or at least the likelihood of it happening, especially as the pollsters' techniques are so far refined nowadays?

And what excuse do many in the media have for promoting Trump's invincibility for weeks?

One excuse — or at least one reason — lies also in reporters' overreliance on social media buzz and also on the "online trend-measuring tools" many editors are now depending on to shape their outlets' coverage for fear of being left behind.

Writing up what is being said on Twitter or Facebook or on other sites allows for easy stories — and ones that can be produced cheaply — since reporters don't have to even leave their desks. In these straitened economic times for the press, that is a godsend. But social media buzz can give a false impression, much as it did with the Arab Spring, persuading media and politicians alike here that the uprisings across the Mideast were made up mainly of liberals and progressives, when their makeup was much more complex. There is virtual reality and then reality, but only sometimes do they overlap. Many of the campaigns exploit that, feeding and gaming social media sites to create buzz.

As each election campaign comes around, what seems to be lost more each season is basic on-the-ground reporting. Too many covering the elections act as commentators, not reporters. They travel too much with the campaigns and madness lies down that road.

Spending less time with the campaigns means reporters might not have a nightly zinger to please editors or secure an invitation from Fox News or MSNBC to appear on TV, but seeing the world through the campaigns and their supporters' eyes is distorting. More time spent with the campaigns and candidates means less time spent with ordinary folk to plumb their opinions and explore the issues worrying them.

Issue reporting is anathema for much of the media. It is considered dull. But amazingly, issues shape voting behavior as much as the personality of candidates. That is why campaigns actually sift through polling data on issues and consider their options. Maybe the media should, as well.

Dettmer is a British-born American journalist and broadcaster. His reporting for Voice of America (VOA) currently focuses on the Middle East and Europe. He has covered four White House races and is a former comment editor for The Hill. He blogs at jamiedettmer.com.

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