Sunday, February 17, 2008

The problems with reporting polls as news

Is that lately, they have frequently been wrong.

Karen Hunter, reader representative at the Hartford Courant, examine that fact today in her column.

Interestingly, she concentrated on a UCONN poll managed by Monika McDermott, which turned out to be spectacularly wrong in it's projections. Apparently, defensively, McDermott explained how the poll could have gotten it so wrong, but she blamed the media for misrepresenting the facts of the poll by concentrating on two question, which, she says "sell newspapers"

I'm afraid no one today knows what sells newspapers, or more of them would be sold. McDermott is partially right. Newspapers and other media like to concentrate on the simple facts of a horse race, and abandon the complexities of a campaign. The media likes to sell poll results as facts, but unfortunately, polling companies market the most sensational elements of the polls they conduct.

In fact, McDermott herself was on the Colin McEnroe show making projections, based on her poll, that were more in the realm of opinion then they were anchored in any kind of fact.

The two big problems are that pollsters are trying to make money by predicting how an entire population feels, or will act, based on a small sample (and it's now clear that they can be wrong well beyond their predicted percentages). And the pollsters themselves get a little starry-eyed when being interviewed as if they were some sort of seers. For their part, the news organizations have treated poll results as if they were actual facts, instead of what they really are, guesses.

In a perfect world, pollsters would retire to the back rooms of phone banks, computers and statistics, and news organizations would print poll results on page 29, for what they are, pretty good hunches about what might happen.

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