Straw Poll Journalism and Quantitative Data: the case of The Literary Digest

Abstract: In 1936, The Literary Digest poll made a disastrous forecast: President Roosevelt would lose the election. George H. Gallup, one of the founding fathers of modern polling, believed the magazine could have avoided this outcome. The only thing the Digest had to do, he said, was to perform a “simple statistical correction” on the data. But Gallup was speaking from the point of view of an occupational creed foreign to the journalistic standards that informed the straw poll journalism practiced by The Literary Digest and other news publications in those days. This paper argues that new journalistic norms (e.g. “impartiality”) were the principal obstacle in the dissemination to the sphere of straw poll journalism of an emerging statistical technology, whose purpose was to evaluate and correct the raw data obtained by polls. The research shows that news-workers of that era did not view “statistical correction” as a legitimate journalistic practice. As a result, polling became, for many years thereafter, the specialty of experts outside the field of journalism.

KEYWORDS data adjustment; diffusion; journalistic ethos; quantification; straw polls

Paper available upon request.

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