“Two out of three Americans say they try to eat as little fat as possible.”
“Two-thirds of Americans report they have given some thought to whether foods and beverages they purchase or consume are produced in a sustainable way.”
“Three out of four Americans say they choose products that are lower in total fat at least sometimes.”
Obviously the pollsters who spew statements like those above didn’t survey every single American to come up with these percentages. Nevertheless, most consumers see quotable “facts” (I’m using that term loosely) and are happy to share them with friends, family members and anyone else who will listen, especially if the “facts” happen to support their own personal viewpoints.
The media’s growing reliance on public-opinion polls is troubling. Harvard University’s recent Theodore H. White Seminar on Press and Politics featured a panel of experts who discussed the use of opinion polls by the media. While some panelist felt polls had value, others were critical of polls and how they were used. All panelists, however, felt change was necessary to make polls more valid and objective.
A panel of experts criticized and offered candid insights on the media’s growing reliance on public-opinion polls during Harvard University’s recent Theodore H. White Seminar on Press and Politics.
Not surprisingly, Peter Hart, the founder of Hart Research Associates and a pollster for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, defended the industry. According to a summary of the discussion, he acknowledged that while change is needed (for example, participation rates are too low, and the public has a poor understanding of public opinion measurement, the data collected by polls is still “exceptionally representative of where the country is at.” (sic) He did, however, stress the importance of integrating other forms of data collection, such as focus groups, to understand the “why” behind the numbers.
Candy Crowley, a former anchor and political correspondent for CNN said horse-race numbers in political polls are “catnip for political reporters,” she, too, defended the practice of polling. The problem is that reporters are “not always trained to correctly report on poll.”
I would suggest that is a huge understatement. It becomes even more of a problem when media outlets know the more sensational the survey results, the more they can capitalize on the news, whether the poll is well executed or not.
Although she said that horse race numbers are “catnip for political reporters” and that reporters are not always trained to correctly report on polls, there wasn’t a better, readily available way of measuring the nation’s pulse, especially since polling has become a fixture of political reporting. She said that the problem was not the existence of polls, but rather the incorrect use of them.
Gary Younge, a columnist for The Guardian, says the problem is with journalism, not polls. To paraphrase, he believes using polls alone without digging deeper creates a lazy kind of journalism, one that loses nuance and “texture.”
American history professor Jill Lepore feels polling had “teetered off course.” During the panel discussion, she explained that the problem is complicated because the public can’t tell the difference between polls with good or bad methodology. She believes other methods, such as deliberative polling, whereby people learn about and debate an issue, and are asked for their opinions before and after reflection, could be a more meaningful way of gathering public opinion.
I wholeheartedly agree. Unless we have understanding and objectivity in the way polls are conducted and explained, we will continue to have skewed, unreliable results that can potentially mislead an uninformed public. The recent World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer report is an illuminating case-in-point.
Whether the questions are related to animal agriculture, food, political candidates, or any other important issue, we can’t afford irresponsibility, especially when opinions impact the way we do business. The long-term ramifications could be devastating.