ARTICLE: The Poll Moves from the Serious Political Scientist Research
Resource to Television News and Internet Popular Entertainment
In decades long past, the poll was a serious and highly planned and
researched statistical sampling device used by researchers in political
science and other social science research efforts. The media has greatly
changed and devalued this tool with its heavy use in trivial pursuits with
little planning to determine the value and representativeness of the
polling techniques used, according to an article in the American
Journalism Review (AJR).
From AJR, January/February 2003
America's news organizations poll the public on a staggering variety of
subjects, from Iraq to the sniper to whether Elvis is still alive. Does
all of this surveying increase understanding, or does it simply amount to
more random noise?
Americans--or those who don't have caller ID and haven't mistaken the
pollster for yet another telemarketer--have been asked everything from the
standard "Whom will you vote for?" to "Do you think Elvis is alive?" A
mere day after the September 11 attacks, the poll machine was up and
running, featuring questions ranging from whether people would change
their travel plans to how long it would take the United States to find
those responsible. NBC News asked if the terrorist attacks were worse than
In June, a Fox News Channel poll asked, "While it is a highly unlikely
situation, if you had the opportunity, would you personally kill Osama bin
Laden?" TV Guide, in what it called a "fun" survey, inquired whether
respondents would rather have Barbara Walters or Diane Sawyer interview
bin Laden. (He's popular in poll questions.) Other polls have asked
Americans what they think about things they can't possibly know, such as
when the war in Afghanistan will end or if Iraq has nuclear weapons. A
Time/CNN poll queried, "Just your best guess, do you think Osama bin Laden
is alive or dead?"
[After some discussion the article makes these points]
"Having fun with polls is OK," says Schulman. But, he stresses, using
polls as entertainment instead of as a bridge between government or
corporate decision makers and the public--the original purpose of
polls--"really undermines the credibility of a lot of what we do."
Because so many surveys are commissioned by news organizations, this is
not just a question of polling etiquette. It's one of media ethics as
well. "There's always the serious question of what is your journalistic
purpose," says Al Tompkins, who teaches broadcasting and online journalism
at the Poynter Institute. "You don't ever want to do anything that would
end up compromising your journalistic integrity."
It's unclear what the public thinks of these Internet surveys (I couldn't
find a poll on this), but in a January/February 2001 AJR article (see
"Polled Enough For Ya?"), Gallup Poll's Frank Newport said the average
American doesn't understand the mechanics behind scientific polling.
People do not think that a poll of 1,500 to 2,000 people can represent how
all Americans feel, he said. "They find that hard to believe."
So the responsibility, as usual, rests with journalists. They have to
ferret out the statistically sound from the sloppily compiled in their
reporting. And news organizations need to ponder what they're polling
about and why.
The full article may be read at the URL above.
(215) 204 - 4584