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Polls, surveys and studies have increasingly become a newscast staple. Nearly every day we seem to be bombarded by a poll, survey or study indicating, or seeming to indicate, how everything from a disease to a politician (if the two are distinct) might be faring among the public. It's always a good idea to figure out beforehand the types of poll and study results you plan to tell your listeners and why.
Polling data are among the most misunderstood and misused information with which we deal. It helps to have an expert available to explain to our listeners...AND TO US...what a poll's results can mean. Usually there's an expert on polling at a nearby college or university. Get in contact with that person and try to build a working relationship. Both you and your listeners will be grateful.
Polls are conducted by various groups -- polling organizations, news operations, colleges and universities, businesses and interest groups, as well as political consulting firms. These groups will generally provide some information on how any given survey was taken, such as how many people were interviewed, how those people were chosen, and how they were interviewed. There are advantages and disadvantages to various polling techniques, and your expert should enlighten you on how trustworthy the results may be.
Care must be given when providing poll results to our listeners. On the one hand, a simplifying vagueness about the results can be deceptive. To say
and to leave it like that gives listeners no impression on how close the race may be. Something must be said about the size of the lead, keeping in mind how the the method of sampling used affects the margin of error and other aspects of result reliability.
Another presentation problem involves tossing ALL of the numbers from a poll to our listeners:
Aside from not being a particularly helpful interpretation of the polling data, this story throws so many numbers that listeners might think they're hearing sports scores or the lottery results. Numbers are, of course, necessary to this story, but they should be included judiciously, and hypothetical results created by manipulating the margin of error should not be included.
Political polling provides a measure of how well a campaign is doing at a particular point in time. Surveys are useful in reporting on the progress (or lack thereof) of a campaign and on any changes that may take place in the campaign as a result of this feedback. But, as we all know, they are not official election returns, and while they may reflect upon the substantive issues in a campaign, poll results do not themselves represent a substantive issue worthy of extensive coverage. In other words, don't spend your time covering the polls instead of covering the election.