Tuesday, January 22, 2008

You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows

I was listening to Colin McEnroe and Teresa Pelham on Colin's drive time show on WTIC-AM last night on the way home, and I heard a UCONN pollster talking about a recent poll. At some point, the pollster seemed to diverge from poll results and move toward some conclusions which didn't seem to be a part of the polls. To be fair, Colin kept returning to the topic of "poll results" and his guest, Teresa Pelham continued to question the methods and validity of the poll. Anyway, I called in and chatted with Colin, and then wrote this in an email to him today:

I called in at the end of you show yesterday to complain about polls, but not exactly to complain about the polls themselves, but about how the media talks about them.

Agreed that polls aren't going away, but maybe responsible journalists and media outlets can begin to write and speak about polls for what they are - mere projections of what may happen, and not absolute facts about the future.

How many times have you seen a headline, or a news anchor proclaim something like: Lead Swells for Obama. And that "fact" comes two weeks ahead of an actual primary. We've seen how polls can be very wrong. And wrong or right, what effect do they have on the elections?

Sure enough, yesterday you talked about the UCONN poll as a poll, and were pretty careful throughout to mention that the conversation was about a poll, but as the conversation went on, your guest talked less about projections, based on the polls, and more about the treating her poll's results, or assumptions made as a result of that poll, as facts.

Based on a sample of 400 in each party, Monika McDermott was making blanket statements: about McCain, she said "he's not seen as conservative," and about Obama, "he's a firecracker that (sic) really inspires people, and he excites them." Both of those statements sound like opinion to me, and I wonder if a statistician ought to be sprinkling those kind of opinions into a conversation about poll results.

I think polls skew voting, and I think some in the media treat polls as fact, particularly when they write headlines, or create graphic grabs on TV.

I know polling and writing about polls are protected by the Constitution, but maybe responsible members of the media could post a disclaimer in every story, every conversation about polls that would be similar to the warning on a pack of cigarettes: This story/conversation is based on a poll, and as such is merely a projection of what might happen in a real election/caucus.

Personally, I think polls are a way for media outlets to create news that they think will get them more readers and viewers. It's become another big business, and like weather reporting, it's designed to grab eyes and ears.

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