The Impact of Public Opinion Polls

By Kovach, Bill | Nieman Reports, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

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.

Finally, whether the increased use of polling in the process was creating a closed, self-feeding system which reduced rather than expanded the public dialogue by including in the debate only those questions which attracted pollsters and campaign managers.

And I must report tonight, I do not believe those fears were misplaced. If the 1988 presidential campaign did anything it fundamentally challenged the hope that public opinion surveys would strengthen the public's informed participation in the process. In the high tech political Star Wars of 1988, what the political process produced for the people was either a paid advertising media visit with old friends, or the product of a reported media which was mesmerized by and incredulous of the extent to which campaign organizations were capable of dictating the context within which the electoral decision would be made. We may have been able to blow away the smoke which filled the rooms in which political decisions were made. But we have replaced it only with a carnival sideshow house of mirrors in which a potential voter is hopelessly trapped in a disorienting hall which is reflecting and re-reflecting the same images.

The real shift in the political campaign of 1988 was the degree to which the independent judgment of the editors and reporters covering the campaign was neutralized by campaign strategies and tactics. This domination may best be represented by the extent to which the dominating themes struck early during the campaign--Willie Horton and the Pledge of Allegiance--began as paid advertisements, but became the focus of the news reports. …

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