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Robo-polls cheap and untrustworthy

Question: Which news organizations refuse, as a matter of news policy, to run the results of polls conducted without the use of a real live interviewer such as Rasmussen?

Answer: ABC News, NBC News, CBS News, CNN, the Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. They all have professional researchers on staff who have set standards for those organizations.

Question: Which news organizations run these polls all the time?

Answer: In my home town of Phoenix, that would include TV channels 3, 5, 10, 12, and 15. Also The Arizona Republic and the National Enquirer.

Ok, I made the last one up, but that is probably not much of a stretch given their journalistic standards. Which company would you care to be in?

Robo-polls such as Rasmussen and SurveyUSA have proliferated because they are absolutely free to conduct. You throw a bunch of phone numbers into a database and have a large volume of robo-calls made over an IP telephone, and you can conduct the entire survey at virtually zero cost in three or four hours.

But because they do not make callbacks to those not at home, their samples over-represent those who never leave the house. There is no respondent selection within the household, which means your eight year old can answer if he can operate a touch-tone phone. There is no live interviewer (effects unknown, but note the reference to the eight year old). And there is seldom more than a single question.

Imagine, journalists, that you were restricted in your interviews to asking a single question of your news sources, and that they could only respond with a monosyllabic response. How much insight would your articles have?

But these polls are quick, and the price is right. As a result, they are numerous – dwarfing the few legitimate polls that are out there.

Why do you not see very many legitimate polls? A scientifically conducted poll has to be expertly designed and administered by trained and supervised interviewers. This costs money. Who is willing to actually pay money to conduct legitimate polls on topics of public interest? Those with a vested interest in the outcomes, who may slant questions designed to show that the public agrees with their positions.

Who should be interested in actually informing the public about what the public thinks about the important issues facing us? I’d like to think this might include large multimillion dollar media organizations. Yeah, I know times are tough and newsrooms are being cut back everywhere. But I’d hate to think that the new standard is “all the news that’s cheap to get.”

I pose this question to every news director in town: When was the last time we learned anything significant about the functioning of our community as the result of a helicopter picture? And what is your budget for that helicopter?

In the meantime, at least we don’t get polls from “Strategic Vision” a “national” firm whose poll results were widely reported in the media throughout the 2008 election. Upon inquiry by the American Association for Public Opinion Research, they were unable to demonstrate that they had actually collected any data.

Further investigation by others found that the firm’s alleged “Atlanta headquarters” were, in fact, a UPS Store mailbox and that the real “headquarters” were in a motel park in a rural community over two hours away.

-Mike O’Neil, PhD, is a pollster for O’Neil Associates Public Opinion Research.

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