UPDATE 9-25: Read What PBS Has to Say about Its Poll. See Below.
PBS is running a poll on Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, asking if people think she is qualified to be Sen. John McCain's vice president. The poll is an online, unscientific poll.
My office has received some emails incorrectly criticizing NPR for running the poll. PBS and NPR may both have public in their name, but they operate independently from one another.
NPR is not — as some believe — sponsoring a poll on Palin.
MORE ON THE POLL, which first appeared on Sept. 5
About The Sarah Palin Poll
From John Siceloff, Executive Producer, NOW on PBS
The Sarah Palin Poll
New and Improved - One User, One Vote.
I am writing in reference to the now famous "Palin poll" that appeared on the NOW on PBS homepage on September 5. It's no longer on the homepage; in fact, it's no longer a page that the online user can navigate to using menus, but hundreds of thousands of unique visitors are still accessing the poll and voting. How is that possible, and is that a good thing? More on that in a moment, after a side trip through the world of Internet "cookies."
PBS headquarters made the decision on September 22, to implement a cookie registration system on the Palin poll. That system is now part of the poll's inner code, and as of September 23, a user can only vote once per computer. PBS acted because the entire pbs.org site had been experiencing system overload due to massive accessing of the poll.
The poll asks the question, "Do you think that Sarah Palin is qualified to serve as Vice President of the United States?" The user answers clicks to answer "Yes" or "No." From September 5 to September 22, our software allowed online users to vote repeatedly. Sounds bad, right? But we at NOW had serious concerns about user privacy. "Cookies" are small text files placed on the user's system without that person's knowledge. Many computer users regard them as invasive.
Other possible fixes: we could have insisted on voters registering with their email addresses. But people could still vote several times using different email addresses. Or we could insist on a unique identifier - a user's social security number. This was clearly way over the line in violation of user privacy.
What are other media organizations doing? CNN.com does exactly what we had been doing—their polls allow multiple votes. The website of the newspaper USA Today also uses polls, called "USA TODAY Snapshot", but it employs the "cookie" approach to restrict multiple voting.
So, is the Palin poll now "scientific"? Absolutely not. It is still subject to large scale efforts on the left and the right to mobilize people to vote. The poll has become something of a Rorschach test, a tiny political marker in a tightly contested race. Over the past two weeks, the results of the poll see-sawed back and forth from a majority saying "No" to a majority saying, "Yes". At the moment the single-voter system was implemented, it was close to a tie: 50% say Sarah Palin is qualified to serve as Vice President, and 48% say no. Those results, in my view, are actually a measure of the mobilization and manipulation efforts by partisans on both sides. Now it will be all about mobilization, and less about manipulation. Blogs on the left and right are circulating viral emails with the exact address of the poll.
Some users have raised questions about our decision to collect opinion about Sarah Palin's qualifications in a poll. For a more complete discussion, take a moment to read the September 19 column of Michael Getler, the PBS Ombudsman.
The Palin poll is no longer in our home page rotation. We've moved on to other polls; each week you'll find one in the bottom right corner of our home page. The current poll asks, "Who do you trust more to fix the nation's economic mess—Barack Obama or John McCain?" It has already attracted a lot of interest.
And let's keep in mind the purpose of these weekly polls. They invite people who might not ordinarily come to our site to participate, and they encourage people to explore the deep journalism that is offered throughout NOW's nearly 10,000 web pages and 1,000 video streams. They don't provide the nuanced interpretation of our investigative journalism and deep content, but do provide a gateway to that content. An example: on Friday, September 19, we aired a one-hour special about women and politics on our broadcast. In the days since the air date, that online video has become the most viewed video on the PBS Election Site. For online users who are deeply interested in the issues raised during this election, the polls are only a starting point. There's a lot more to explore, to read, and to view.
I welcome your thoughts and comments about the Palin poll. Please use this specific Feedback Forum to share your opinions.
PBS has an Ombudsman who has weighed in on this issue in his most recent column. Ombudsman Michael Getler wrote:
About that Poll
The poll question first appeared two weeks ago (Sept. 5) on NOW on PBS' Web site and asked: "Do you think Sarah Palin is qualified to serve as Vice President of the United States?" Scores of viewers wrote to me to criticize this, seeing it as liberal bias on the part of PBS and NOW and also asking why the program didn't also ask if Sen. Barack Obama was qualified to be president of the United States.
A lengthy response follows from John Siceloff, executive producer of NOW, along with a sampling of letters from critical viewers.
But first, I'm with Siceloff on this one. NOW does lots of online polling and I think the questions stand the test of breadth and fairness. In this case, it seems to me to be a reasonable question to ask. Gov. Palin clearly was largely unknown to the vast majority of Americans at the time of the Republican National Convention. She has now been on the national scene for a matter of weeks, has been largely shielded from questioning by the press with the exception of one major broadcast TV interview aired thus far, and is indeed a heartbeat away from becoming president should she be elected and something happens to Sen. John McCain, who, at 72, would be the oldest person ever elected to the presidency.
As for Obama, he announced his candidacy in February 2007, received more than 17 million votes during the primary campaign, won 18 states in those primaries and 13 others where there were caucuses, and has been in scores of candidate debates and press interviews. So a large number of people have already stated that they think he is qualified, but we will only know on Election Day if that is more or less than think McCain is better qualified.