Political polls: today’s junk journalism

WASHINGTON — Entering 2012, President Barack Obama’s re-election prospects are essentially a 50-50 proposition, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll.

That’s the first sentence of today’s political poll, which was printed in newspapers across the country. Did it tell you anything that you didn’t already know from last week’s political poll? The story goes on to tell us that Americans are unhappy with the way Obama has handled the economy. Really? The AP spent money on this?

It’s not just AP that is throwing away money. It’s the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and all the TV networks. I’ve always thought that most of the political polls were just handicapping a horse race that wasn’t going to occur for another year. That is to say junk journalism.

Now there is academic research to back me up.

That “likely-voter screen,” the battery of questions (Gallup’s contains seven of them) asking people how probable they are to vote, is a staple of just about every survey you see these days. “Public polls”—the ones that now pop up with metronomic regularity under the banner of news organizations and colleges—typically rely on such screens to filter likely voters from the much broader pool of people they get on the line by randomly dialing numbers. In their unpublished paper, Aida and Rogers poked big holes in the screen, suggesting in some cases it was no better than flipping a coin in determining who was likely to vote.

You know that coin? Imagine if the new media spent it doing real journalism, covering the news that affects people.

(Hat tip to Mark Binker.)

3 thoughts on “Political polls: today’s junk journalism

  1. Polls help feed the flame. Where else can you interview as few people as possible without certification or explanation and generate headlines and stories that can point anyway you desire? With the proper slant in technique, a poll could put Adolph Hitler in the White House.

  2. Eh. Polls are data. I like data. The problem isn’t information (which comes with limitations and flaws, which must be studied to be understood and applied and compared in useful ways) but the narratives we build out of the bits of information we choose to talk about.

    We’ve been bitching about “horse race” coverage since I was in J-School, and I’ve been all around the block on that. Here’s where I wound up: politics involves polling research. Political campaigns and parties and interest groups make decisions based on poll data. Trying to imagine a press that doesn’t report poll data is like trying to imagine a radio play-by-play of a football game where the announcer has decided not to give you the down and distance. If you’re going to tell people that you’re going to cover politics, you’ve got to conduct and cover polls. Obviously that’s not all you should be doing, but it can’t be an either/or decision.

    Now you can be mad about the accuracy of polling (a HUGE issue: how do you account for people who don’t have published landline phone numbers?), and you can be mad about the way that horse-race coverage distorts the public’s understanding of civic life in America (millions of people have strident opinions in this country about issues they can’t even describe accurately). But I’ve been down the rabbit hole where well-intended people tried to de-emphasize coverage of poll numbers, as if polls themselves were toxic to democracy. From my limited perspective, that attitude winds up misreading our mission, condescending to the public and failing to produce the desired results.

    As Mencken said, “There’s a simple solution to every complex problem, and it’s wrong.”

  3. Agree with Dan.
    The part about landlines will be a huge factor in polling errors in 2012. It’ll be huge in North Carolina for the May 8 primary with the state constitutional amendment. If we really want to get to the heart of voters’ true news sources (noted in one of your other posts) and motivations, I have a lovely 20-page research proposal ready to go. It just needs a little funding. But that’s always the way…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *