The Impact of Public Opinion Polls
Kovach, Bill, Nieman Reports
Do they shape or measure opinions?
At the AAPOR meeting 10 years go I talked about a user's view of the polls. I talked then about my experience as an editor of The New York Times and of the enormous benefit which The New York Times/CBS poll had brought our reporters and readers, especially during political campaigns--how our own polling capability had freed us from dependence on self-serving analysis by candidates; had given us an independent check upon the course and integrity of the campaign process. We had, it seemed, achieved at least a part of the dream of progressive reformers that a disciplined, scientific approach to public opinion surveying would free the voice of the people from control by subjective party bosses and the tyranny of the smoke-filled room. Democracy of permanent referenda; constant accountability.
I know some of you were at the meeting because when my article appeared on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times last year, raising questions about the use of public opinion surveys by the press, I received a number of letters asking how I squared that article and that speech.
It was a troubling question. Consistency is not a hallmark of daily journalism, but now that I've shifted to a more academic setting it is a characteristic which seems to receive more attention. So I dug out my old speech and must admit I was relieved to find the roots of my present concerns in that speech. And they are clearly concerns which have only grown with time. As I put it then:
"All in all I guess it's safe to say that I have become a believer in the careful use of polling in my work and fully understand the value of it as a tool to construct a better and more informative story. However, there are some things that disturb me still and these troubling thoughts have grown with the proliferation of polls in daily journalism."
Briefly, the concerns I listed then were:
First, the use of political polls as horserace reporting devices--to focus on who's ahead at a given point in the campaign.
Second, the impact on the sequential primary process by which presidential candidates are chosen--an impact I feared could frustrate the democratic process as poll results created unrealistic expectations of performance or whipsawed public emotion by creating an almost daily contest of popularity which campaigns attempted to control.
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: The Impact of Public Opinion Polls. Contributors: Kovach, Bill - Author. Magazine title: Nieman Reports. Volume: 53. Issue: 4 Publication date: Winter 1999. Page number: 52. © 1999 Harvard University, Nieman Foundation. COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.