The Truth Behind the NOW on PBS "Palin Poll"

You may have seen or been forwarded an email pleading with you to visit the NOW on PBS website to vote on what we now call the "Palin Poll." This poll question, asking if Sarah Palin is qualified to serve as Vice President, was launched during the Republican Convention, and was replaced the next week, as we do with all of our weekly poll questions.

As with all web polls, this one was unscientific -- created to measure enthusiasm, inspire dialogue and debate, and to draw attention to our more comprehensive content: video investigations, interactive debates, interviews, maps & charts, essays, etc. Given this, we did not at first restrict the number of votes a user could make.


Sometimes, creating web content is like tossing lit matches at a gasoline station. Some fizzle in puddles, and others find their way to a pool of gasoline. This poll reached the attention of many bloggers and passionate political communities on the left and on the right. The poll, which normally saw thousands of votes, suddenly received tens of millions of votes. Site traffic on the whole increased exponentially, and we saw spam-like emails pleading for "Yes" and "No" votes from as far away as France and Belgium, and as close as our friends, doctors, and colleagues. The poll quickly became the #1 most popular web page on all of PBS, bringing with it four other NOW on PBS web pages to complete the top five.

In response to the attention, including some complaints about the poll methodology and the appropriateness of the question itself, a cookie registration system was set in place, and John Siceloff, Executive Producer of NOW on PBS, wrote this public letter to share with our NOW on PBS audience, both old and new, as an effort to make our means and motives transparent:

From NOW on PBS Executive Producer John Siceloff

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 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? 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.