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20 Questions A Journalist Should Ask About Poll Results - continued

19. What else needs to be included in the report of a poll?

The key element in reporting polls is context. Not only does this mean that you should compare the poll to others taken at the same time or earlier, but it also means that you need to report on what events may have impacted on the poll results.

A good poll story not only reports the results of the poll but also assists the reader in the interpretation of those results. If the poll shows a continued decline in consumer confidence even though leading economic indicators have improved, your report might include some analysis of whether or not people see improvement in their daily economic lives even though the indicators are on the rise.

If a candidate has shown marked improvement in a horse race, you might want to report about the millions of dollars spent on advertising immediately prior to the poll.

Putting the poll in context should be a major part of your reporting.

20. So I've asked all the questions. The answers sound good. Should we report the results?

Yes, because reputable polling organizations consistently do good work.

However, remember that the laws of chance alone say that the results of one poll out of 20 may be skewed away from the public's real views just because of sampling error.

Also remember that no matter how good the poll, no matter how wide the margin, no matter how big the sample, a pre-election poll does not show that one candidate has the race "locked up." Things change—often and dramatically in politics. That's why candidates campaign.

If the poll was conducted correctly, and you have been able to obtain the information outlined here, your news judgment and that of your editors should be applied to polls, as it is to every other element of a story.

In spite of the difficulties, the public opinion survey, correctly conducted, is still the best objective measure of the state of the views of the public.

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