[27 January 2008]
By Chris Justice
Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama
Quinnipiac University journalism professor Paul Janensch was right when he recently stated this in The Connecticut Post Online: “Polls can tell us what voters are thinking and who is ahead at a specific time. But polls should not be considered prophetic.” But why do so many journalists ignore this reality?
Polls raise more questions than answers. I hear the echoes now around water coolers throughout the country: “Were you polled?” “Who? Me? I’ve never been polled.” So who was actually polled? And when were they polled? What was the question? What exactly is a “margin of error”? Which political organizations fund this pollster?
Polls are useful when identifying trends in public opinion, but are damaging when they become news stories themselves. They promote instant debate ripe for sound bytes, but rarely spur thoughtful, critical analyses. As snapshots of accuracy, they are numbingly inaccurate, create more confusion than clarity, disagree with each other constantly, and direct more attention upon the pollster than the information they solicit.
Answers are moot with polls and pollsters, as John Zogby demonstrated during a recent interview with Jon Stewart. Politicians may need polls, but journalists should avoid them, especially in an era of eroding trust in our news agencies. When so much information is under suspicion, journalists must do a better job of scrutinizing the most suspicious.
I prefer people to polls. Journalists should report people’s stories and not the impersonal, mercurial speculations produced by the American polling monolith. Journalists should avoid using polling information in their leads. Polls are predictive, not prophetic. They don’t warrant the attention journalists give them.
Chris Justice is the Director of Expository Writing at The University of Baltimore.