Media surveys more uses for polls

Polls have expanded their appeal past just politics to societal and other issues. But to capitalize on media attention, polls must be scientifically sound.

Polls have expanded their appeal past just politics to societal and other issues. But to capitalize on media attention, polls must be scientifically sound.

Forget Mark Twain's warning about statistics. America is poll-happy these days, especially in an election year where a slight up or down tick in the president's approval rating can be fodder for days of media commentary. But the interest in polls extends far beyond politics. These days print and broadcast outlets are rushing out the latest numbers on everything from the national mood to the low-carb craze to the frequency with which Americans are having sex. Peter Hart, CEO of Hart Research Associates, which conducts research for Wall Street Journal/NBC polls, notes, "I started my firm 33 years ago, and back then you had to sell people on the science of polling. Today, the media not only accepts polls, they count on them." The problem, Hart says, is that many news outlets simply publish whatever results are sent their way without ever examining the methodology used to get the numbers. "The media does a terrible job of delineating between valid and very strict survey research, and bad survey research," Hart explains. "There's only one word they use, and that's 'poll,' and a poll can be anything that adds up to 100%." "The thing that concerns the Gallup Organization is this proliferation of non-scientific polls," says Eric Nielsen, Gallup's senior director of media strategies. "Everybody is being inundated with text-message polls, push polls, internet polls, and it's sort of diluting the waters. We love that there's more polling, but we need to see better polls." Proliferation of media polls Cliff Zukin, VP of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, as well as a political science and public policy professor at Rutgers University, suggests that there's a simple reason for the seeming proliferation of polls in the media. "Most polls that are reported on are in fact media-sponsored polls," he says. "If you look at all the big polls, it's ABC, The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN, NBC, The Wall Street Journal." Zukin says that in itself isn't a major issue, but adds, "What has happened is that because the media are now the owners of the polls, their demand for immediacy leads to some bad practices, even with scientifically-based procedures. As an example he noted the day after John Kerry selected John Edwards as his running mate, both Gallup and CBS News had polls on the public reaction to the choice. "You don't have enough time to do a proper survey in one day," he says. Nielsen notes Gallup does the USA Today/CNN political polls, but says the organization also does surveys on everything from finance and commerce to youth trends, healthcare, and religion. "About half our polling is done under our own name," he says, adding that the company does try to work with its PR firm, Trylon Communications, on proactive outreach to get those results in the media. Adding perspective Trylon president Lloyd Trufelman agrees that the media does like to see issues put into clearly definable numbers, but stresses that doesn't mean every poll you put out is destined for coverage. "You still have to take an aggressive approach," he says. "When you have a poll you don't sit back and hope people will call." Trufelman adds that in an election year there's also a heightened demand for people who can put the numbers in perspective. Trufelman works with Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll, to help reporters understand both the methodology and the statistical trends behind a poll. But, he adds, the polltakers themselves have to make sure they stick to the facts and resist the temptation to interpret results. "There's a difference between a pollster and a pundit, and Gallup experts are not pundits," he says. There is the argument that the media have become too reliant on polls for the easy news hook and may not spend enough time stressing to their audiences that polling is not exact and there is a built-in margin for error. This has contributed somewhat to the confusion in the presidential race, with various polls placing either George W. Bush or Kerry in the lead. But Hart argues even these results serve their purpose. "You can have two separate polls taken on successive days showing a different person ahead, but in reality both polls are showing the same thing, which is the race is very close," he says. Pitching... polling stories
  • Reporters love surveys. A good poll offers a solid news hook for stories ranging from societal to consumer trends
  • Include the methodology behind the poll in your pitch, so reporters will be able to judge how statistically sound it is. There's a big difference between surveys based on probability theory and push- or text-message polls
  • Numbers alone don't tell the whole story, so, if you can, offer experts who put a poll in perspective.

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