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Poll Fault

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 5/2/2001

A constant complaint about the Clinton administration was that it was guided more by polls than by principles. In retrospect, we should be thankful that at least President Clinton had good polls. What if the White House had relied on the sort of junk polls that currently contaminate the news media?

By junk polls, I mean the all-too-familiar "cast your vote" gimmicks that appear in newspapers and magazines, on local and national TV news broadcasts, and, most significantly, on the Web sites of all of the above. These faux-democratic features tend to crop up whenever the viewing/reading audience is in the throes of a major fad or when a deep public controversy dominates the news. Let me get right to the point: Junk polls are annoying enough when they concern silly crap that has zero news value, such as WJZ's (channel 13) moronic "online Web poll" about Survivor last year. But when such polls concern serious policy issues, they constitute misinformation.

In the latter category, the recent legislative struggle over the death penalty in Maryland has spawned at least two junk polls by news outlets that should know better: Maryland Public Television (MPT) and Patuxent Publishing's weekly Towson Times.

MPT's Newsnight Maryland program routinely directs viewers to the station's Web site ( to participate in something called the "Maryland Pulse Poll." The questions change week to week; results, expressed as percentages, are posted on the site after the poll has closed. For the week of April 16, MPT asked, "Should the death penalty in Maryland be eliminated?" Right below the ballot runs this disclaimer: "Note: This poll is not scientific and reflects the opinions of those Internet users who have chosen to participate. The results cannot be assumed to represent the opinions of Internet users in general, or the public as a whole."

Right. So why publish the damn thing? I asked Jeff Hankin, MPT's vice president for marketing, whose defense of the feature is unpersuasive but commendably unenthusiastic. "It's an opportunity for viewers to express opinions," Hankin says. "Sometimes it's interesting just to hear their reactions to things." He adds that the poll question usually relates to a topic discussed on Newsnight's call-in segment, so the poll serves as "a means of interacting with the program" for viewers whose calls didn't make it to the air. Hankin freely acknowledges all the flaws and limitations suggested by the station's fig-leaf disclaimer, while arguing wanly that even the most scientific polls need to be taken in context.

The Towson Times "Web Poll," touted on the paper's editorial page, resembles the MPT poll in that it's a regular weekly feature. In the April 18 edition, the question was, "What should become of the death penalty in the state of Maryland?" Readers who visited www. were offered four possible responses: "Use it more often," "Don't change a thing," "Stop executions until more studies done [sic]," and "Abolish it." Fancier still, the Times posts the scores for each response, on an ongoing basis, right next to the "voting" buttons. There is no MPT-style disclaimer.

I won't quote the results of these mock surveys, so as not to spread noxious info-germs, but it's interesting to note that the pro- and anti-death penalty percentages reported by the Times were (last I checked) roughly the opposite of the split reported by MPT, with Times respondents more heavily opposed to the death penalty and MPT's tending to favor it. I'm resisting the impulse to analyze why the results are so different--the simplest explanation is that neither poll reflects reality--but the very fact of the impulse to analyze such phony data underscores one of my concerns about junk polls: They publish numerical factoids that superficially resemble statistical facts.

The most obvious problems with junk polls are implied by the MPT disclaimer. A legitimate poll--one that reflects the actual sentiments of a targeted population--takes a statistically significant (i.e., large), genuinely random sample of opinions across that population. Web-based polls, as MPT knows, survey a self-selected subset of individuals who have Internet access. Must I point out that Internet users aren't representative of the population as a whole? Furthermore, unlike the Towson paper's Web masters, no legitimate pollster supplies participants with running totals of the votes before the poll closes. (The Times' junk-poll guru was not available for comment by press time.)

Yet another obvious problem--one MPT's Hankin cited in our conversation--is that Web-based ballot boxes are easy to stuff. I learned about the Times poll from Baltimore peace activist Max Obuszewski, who circulated an e-mail to point out that, as of April 17, only 17 percent of the poll's respondents had "voted" for abolition of the death penalty. Lo and behold, a week later the poll's anti-death-penalty percentage had more than tripled. Why should serious activists bother to respond to a bogus poll? Because they fear that if they don't stuff the ballot the other side will, unleashing a baseless but quotable factoid into the info-environment. Tellingly, of the four optional responses offered by the Times, the two "extreme" positions garnered 90 percent of the votes.

Tom Chalkley has done a fine job of exposing junk polls for the nuisances they are.

I agree.
I disagree.
Voting applet developed by Insta-poll.
I suspect the real reason for the proliferation of these gimmicks is that technology makes it so easy. As a friend of mine says of bad Web design, "The logo spins because it can spin." For the online-poll perps, there are several payoffs: The surveys generate Web-site hits, give readers/viewers an illusory sense of engagement and empowerment, and give editors a false sense that they're getting meaningful "feedback" from the audience.

I think I've done a fine job of exposing junk polls for the nuisances they are. Do you agree or disagree? Cast your vote!

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