Traditional, Online Polls Reported Differently

Article excerpt

In the last several decades, especially since the late 1970s, public opinion polls have been acknowledged as a necessary tool for probing the complexity of people's beliefs and attitudes on a variety of issues. Thus, the significance of public opinion polls in news coverage has been recognized and well documented in the literature. For instance, Kathleen Frankovic, director of surveys for CBS News, said that "counting tends to make something appear more real" and numbers provide us with "a sense of definiteness." (1) Today people like to quote the latest poll when they discuss a pertinent issue. The media also love to include polls in their coverage.

Along with the proliferation of traditional polls, such as telephone and mail surveys, surveys conducted via the Internet have become more common. Both pollsters and news organizations have increasingly turned to online public opinion polls, despite criticisms of this method as non-representative and the differences between the demographics of online users and the general population. Given that an important advantage of survey research is its ability to select a sample that represents a larger population, many researchers have voiced reservations about online polling and its reporting in the media. (2) Nonetheless, the number of online poll stories in the news media has increased considerably in the last several years. (3)

In previous studies of the use of poll data in the news media, one of the main interests has been the quality of poll reports. Given the influence of media coverage on people's beliefs and attitudes, the question of how non-representative online public opinion polls are reported in the news media assumes increased importance and deserves to be closely examined, including a comparison with the reporting of traditional, mostly random sample, opinion polls during the same time period. To do this, this study analyzes the coverage of both traditional polls and online polls in selected U.S. newspapers during the 1996-98 time period to compare the frequency and the way in which these polls were reported.

About three decades ago, a number of scholars heralded the new "precision" journalism that used social science methods for news reporting. (4) We now stand on the edge of another shift in which online polls are beginning to compete with traditional polls as methods for news reporting. Keeping in mind the words of Leo Bogart that "public misunderstanding of opinion surveys can be expected to continue as long as the mass media ignore or belittle their technical intricacies," (5) this study attempts to investigate this shift.

Polls in the Media

Polls have become a ubiquitous tool for probing people's opinions, and the reporting of public opinion polls in the news media has become a major index of public feelings about innumerable topics during the last several decades. According to a Lexis-Nexis search conducted by the authors, the New York Times and the Washington Post carried nearly 10,000 opinion poll reports during the three years of 1996, 1997 and 1998.

Even though the use of polls by the news media has been criticized as "manufactured news" (6) or "pseudo-events," (7) the significance of public opinion polls in news reports, especially in politics or election coverage, has been well documented in the literature for decades.

Philip Meyer, in his influential 1973 book Precision Journalism, emphasized social science methodology for news reporting. (8) Three years before, Harold Mendelsohn and Irving Crespi argued that the use of polls by journalists usually satisfies "the public's curiosity about the world in which it lives." (9) Twenty years ago David Weaver and Max McCombs observed that "polling has provided journalism with a new perspective on news, and it has made journalists more aware of the news value of quantitative data." (10) Albert Gollin noted that the reporting of opinion polls by news media offers media organizations some opportunities for "altering and extending" traditional modes of news reports, especially in political news coverage. …