For the past 65 years, public opinion polls have been an integral feature of news media reports on politics and elections.
The reasons are pretty simple to understand. Most public opinion polls are conducted by professional firms using scientific methods. As such, they are considered to be inherently impartial, accurate and fair representations of what the public thinks about candidates and parties.
The firms that poll during an election are usually independent of the political parties. This gives the news media a source of independent information about the campaign. Polls, especially ones exclusive to the news organization, can give the media outlets a direction for coverage.
When news media commission polls, they also gain a marketing boost. Don’t discount the business imperative in news. Tom Rosenstiel is executive director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Rosenstiel began a 2005 article on political polling and news media by recounting a meeting at the Los Angeles Times in 1991 to plan coverage of the 1992 election.
“Polls are a form of marketing for news organizations,” Rosenstiel wrote. “Every time a Los Angeles Times poll is referred to in other media, the paper is getting invaluable positive marketing for its name and credibility.”
Presenting information in an entertaining way has always been a part of news. Poll results typically come in a form that lends itself to an horse-race story format. That injects some energy into what might otherwise be a dull story of numbers. .
Reporters usually have an easy time summing up a poll report. That’s an increasingly important factor in newsrooms operating on tight budgets and facing heavy demands for content.
Rosenstiel marked that pressure in 2005 as a key feature of modern newsrooms. But in truth, the need to produce news stories quickly has always been a feature of news media for some time now, especially electronic media. Political scientist Everett Carl Ladd wrote in 1980:
For the most part, the press… must work quickly to do its mandated job. This observation obviously applies a somewhat less to magazines than to the daily newspaper or the nightly television news broadcast, but it holds generally. The story must be promptly brought to the audience.
What’s changed more recently is the increased demand for content as smaller numbers of news organizations produce material for print, radio, television and the Internet, sometimes from the same newsroom. Often this is simply the repackaging of material, as Rosenthiel noted. And that makes apparently simple stuff – like reporting a horserace poll – that much more attractive. if the news organization commissions a poll of its own and delves into more than just the “who’s on first” question, they can generate new content for days.
None of the media’s use of polls is has come without controversy.
In the run-up to the spring general election, the seemingly wide variation in poll results generated news stories about the reliability of polling.
At a conference on the May federal election, people representing eight polling firms debated the impact of polls on the election. Opinions varied – as they did – on what impact poll reporting had on the public. According to a Canadian Press story, Frank Graves of Ekos Research said that post-election polling found that Canadians didn’t believe poll reporting affected the outcome of the election
Environics' Kevin Neuman was doubtful.
"People may say that (polls) don't influence, but it would influence the media and how the media cover the story and frame the story," he said, adding that the CROP poll "may have completely changed the media coverage."
In the recent Ontario general election, some pollsters complained about the publication of polls from different sources, often without any apparent concern for their accuracy.
“We are distorting our democracy, confusing voters and destroying what should be a source of truth in election campaigns — the unbiased, truly scientific public-opinion polls,” wrote Darrell Bricker and John Wright of Ipsos Reid.
Bricker said most research firms are accurate. But some are “so ridiculously inaccurate” he wonders how they got into the business. And elections bring out the carpetbaggers or those trying out untested, and dubious, methodology.
Still, the biggest question for him is not research firms. “I have to ask the question, what are the media thinking?
Closer to home, Corporate Research Associates’ Don Mills complained in the Telegram on Saturday about the accuracy of some polling released during the recent provincial election campaign. MQO released two polls during the campaign that relied on a combination of telephone polling plus online surveys:
“There’s a lot of people who say online research is just as good as telephone research. That has not been proven to be true and we have recent examples in Atlantic Canada where a competitor of ours has used an online methodology and have not got it within the margin of error they quoted,” he said.
“They are not even supposed to quote margin of error in online polls.”
Not all pollsters are as enthusiastic about the proliferation of polls and the increasingly close relationship between the media and opinion research firms.
In April, Allan Gregg – perhaps the country’s most famous researcher – and Frank Graves of Ekos spoke out in an article by Canadian Press.
There’s broad consensus among pollsters that proliferating political polls suffer from a combination of methodological problems, commercial pressures and an unhealthy relationship with the media.
Start with the methodological morass.
“The dirty little secret of the polling business . . . is that our ability to yield results accurately from samples that reflect the total population has probably never been worse in the 30 to 35 years that the discipline has been active in Canada,” says veteran pollster Allan Gregg, chairman of Harris-Decima which provides political polling for The Canadian Press.
The increased use of cell phones and changing lifestyles have made traditional telephone surveys less reliable, according to Gregg. Online polling may produce more reliable results in some instances but not in others.
Still, according to Gregg, polling firms are producing margin of error calculations “as if we’re generating perfect samples and we are not anymore.”
Pollsters continue to generate horse race polls for their marketing value, according to both Gregg and Andre Turcotte, a pollster and communications professor quoted in Joan Bryden’s Canadian Press story from April.
Turcotte says political polls for the media are “not research anymore” so much as marketing and promotional tools. Because they’re not paid, pollsters don’t put much care into the quality of the product, often throwing a couple of questions about party preference into the middle of an omnibus survey on other subjects which could taint results.
And there’s no way to hold pollsters accountable for producing shoddy results since, until there’s an actual election, there’s no way to gauge their accuracy.
Not surprisingly, the association representing polling firms disagrees. The Market Research and Intelligence Association (MRIA) took out a full page ad in newspaper’s across Canada when the polling controversy first sprang up in February. The ad affirmed the association’s “confidence in the results of our polling and the value that we provide to Canadians.”
Politics, polls and the media
The 2011 provincial general election in Newfoundland and Labrador brought with it both an unprecedented number of horse race polls and a certain level of controversy.
In the second part of this series – on Tuesday - we’ll take a look at the polls, the polling firms, what they reported, and what the polls measured.
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- Tuesday: “PPM: The Polls in the 2011 Election”
- Wednesday: “PPM: The Polls and the Local Media”
- Thursday: “PPM: Controversy, Accountability and Disclosure”