[FORUM]Polls and election reportingIn general, BBC of Great Britain and NHK of Japan are cited as models of public broadcasting, and the biggest reason for their renown lies in their independence from political authority. As demonstrated in the recent clash with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, BBC does not hesitate to wage all-out war even with a top political leader. It refuses to be a lackey or a lap dog to the powerful like some state-run media companies in underdeveloped countries, and voluntarily serves the role of a watchdog.
The lesser-known ARD, the No. 1 public broadcasting company in Germany, is a media entity beloved by the German people for its accurate coverage and impartial editorials. It faithfully fulfills its duties as a public broadcasting enterprise, no matter who is in power. In particular, ARD’s predictions of election results are acclaimed for their accuracy, with scientific exit polls that post a margin of error only in the 1-percent range. So in Germany’s elections, the picture is pretty much clear by the time 6 p.m. news is aired. At 8 o’clock the chancellor-elect would give a victory speech, and that would be the end of election coverage, although the official count would arrive the next day.
However, even the ARD, famed for precise exit polls, had a hard time at the 2002 legislative elections. About an hour into the ballot count, ARD reported that the opposition CDU/CSU party was ahead of the ruling SPD by about 2 percent. Because of this report, Governor Edmund Stoiber of Bayern, the opposition’s candidate for chancellor, went on the air prematurely to declare victory. However, the neck-and-neck race continued until the victory for the SPD was finally decided, long past midnight.
But the ARD’s mistake in coverage was understandable at the time, considering the fact that the CDU/CSU and the SPD had both earned 38.5% of the votes, identical down to the first decimal point. It was impossible to predict an accurate outcome to begin with, because it was a very close race, in which only about 6,000 votes separated the winner from the loser in a country with over 80 million people. Therefore no one took issue with the ARD’s misreporting at the time.
Now let’s take a look at Korea’s public broadcasters. Once again the exit polls of the Korean media were off the mark. Of course the mistake was not as glaring as in the 16th legislative elections, in which the No. 1 party was switched with the No. 2 party. But the broadcasters’ assurances that they would report accurate predictions, by pouring in enormous amounts of money and manpower, ended up nothing but an empty promise.
Excuses and analyses abounded when experts tried to figure out what caused such an unsatisfactory result. Among all the explanations, the analysis that it was the reluctance of GNP supporters to answer the exit poll seemed the most plausible. It was even said that some who voted for the GNP reportedly went so far as to tell a lie, and said that they voted for Our Open Party.
If this is true, then the problem is serious. Why did GNP supporters hesitate to tell the truth? What could have frightened them? An official at the KBS labor union came up with a lucid explanation. He said at a recent gathering that GNP supporters were ashamed to say whom they voted for, and Korea is no longer a place where GNP supporters can flaunt their allegiance. But at this point it’s not wise to ask, “What are they ashamed of?” Because the answer is evident if the coverage of public broadcasting during the election campaign, especially after the presidential impeachment, is any indicator. Unless viewers were really clueless, anyone who had been following the news would not have dared to say that he or she voted for GNP candidates. That is why public broadcasting is accused of not merely swaying public opinion, but of blatantly taking sides.
So the media should not point fingers at the public for the erroneous exit poll, but should blame their biased reporting. If public broadcasting fails to earn the trust of the people, the same mistake will be repeated in the next election. Public broadcasting that is not trusted by the public can no longer be called public broadcasting.
* The writer is a deputy managing editor in charge of cultural news of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Yoo Jae-sik