Polls provide the best direct
source of information about public opinion. They are valuable tools for
journalists and can serve as the basis for accurate, informative news stories.
For the journalist looking at a set of poll numbers, here are the 20 questions
to ask the pollster before reporting any results. This publication is designed
to help working journalists do a thorough, professional job covering polls. It
is not a primer on how to conduct a public opinion survey.
The only polls that should be
reported are "scientific" polls. A number of the questions here will
help you decide whether or not a poll is a "scientific" one worthy of
coverage – or an unscientific survey without value.
Unscientific pseudo-polls are
widespread and sometimes entertaining, but they never provide the kind of
information that belongs in a serious report. Examples include 900-number
call-in polls, man-on-the-street surveys, many Internet polls, shopping mall
polls, and even the classic toilet tissue poll featuring pictures of the
candidates on each roll.
One major distinguishing
difference between scientific and unscientific polls is who picks the
respondents for the survey. In a scientific poll, the pollster identifies and
seeks out the people to be interviewed. In an unscientific poll, the
respondents usually "volunteer" their opinions, selecting themselves
for the poll.
The results of the
well-conducted scientific poll provide a reliable guide to the opinions of many
people in addition to those interviewed – even the opinions of all Americans.
The results of an unscientific poll tell you nothing beyond simply what those
By asking these 20 questions,
the journalist can seek the facts to decide how to report any poll that comes
across the news desk.
The authors wish to thank the
officers, trustees and members of the National Council on Public Polls for
their editing assistance and their support.
12. Who’s on first?
Gawiser, S. R. and Witt, G.E. 2006. 20 Questions a Journalist Should Ask about Poll Results. National Council on Public Polls. Accessed at http://www.ncpp.org/?q=node/4 on January, 10, 2007.