June 5, 2007

Polls: What Do They Add Up To?

From the McCormick Tribune Specialized Reporting Institute

No journalism student in America should graduate without a class in statistics (and rhetoric and linguistics for that matter, but that’s a discussion for another day). The first session after lunch discussed covering polls.

Upshot: 1. It is very easy misunderstand what it is a poll actually means; and, therefore 2) It is very easy to mischaracterize the results of a poll.

The questions from the participating journalists demonstrate to me that many of them never took a college-level statistics class, in which basic concepts such as sample size, margins of error, and confidence would have been covered. But just as important as gaining an understanding of those nuts-n-bolts concepts is gaining a proper understanding of how statisticians think about what numbers say and do not say (although 4 out of 5 eggheads do not always agree).

Kathie Obradovich, political editor of the Des Moines Register, said that articles focusing on who’s ahead and who’s behind based on polls does a “disservice” to readers–especially so early in the campaign. Such reporting runs the risk of encouraging some voters to make up their mind before primary voting begins.

Dave Catanese, of KY3 in Springfield, is a participant in the institute and asked an important question because it highlighted a trouble spot: If Candidate X had 34% and Candidate Y has 30% and the margin of error is +/- 5, is it fair to lead a story saying Candidate X is ahead by 4%. Two of the statisticians on the panel disagreed about how to handle this. One argued that journalists should not burden citizens with too many stats, but journalists should state the margin of error and what else the stats could mean. The other statistician, however, argued that journalists should report polls in far more complexity.

I vote for more complexity. But, more radically, I contend that polls should not generally be reported as news pegs. Polls should be reported, for the most part, as part of larger articles about other matters.

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