By AUDREY WINKELSAS
With Scotland’s independence on the line, the historic referendum permeated newsrooms around the world this week.
News organizations reported as usual, interviewing voters who expressed their reasons for voting “Yes” or “No” for Scottish independence. Such reporting came to a halt at 6 a.m. on voting day for several news organizations.
On Sept. 18, BBC News was entirely devoid of opinion on the subject of Scottish independence. Following its code of practice, the BBC reported only uncontroversial factual accounts such as the number of polling stations, the percentage of the electorate registered to vote, and even the weather in a “commitment to impartiality and fairness.”
These sorts of practices are vital to avoid misrepresentation and to ensure that the outcome of an election truly reflects the population’s beliefs as a whole. If an election is predicted to be neck and neck, it is likely that more people will go to the polls. If, on the other hand, reported polling suggests a landslide victory, supporters of the minority party may feel that there is no hope so why bother voting? Or quite the opposite, if the popular candidate is “sure to win,” people may feel that it’s okay not to make it to the polls because so many other people will vote in favor of their cause. If enough people have that mentality, the minority opinion might win after all!
Having said that, as journalists, we must ensure that proper polling techniques were used, such as obtaining a representative sample, before reporting results. We certainly don’t want another case of the 1936 Literary Digest blunder. This applies even when sharing the results of a poll conducted by another organization. The information given to the public may bias their actions and we as journalists don’t want to be responsible for changing the course of history against true public opinion.