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20 Questions A Journalist Should Ask About Poll Results - continued

1. Who did the poll?

What polling firm, research house, political campaign, or other group conducted the poll? This is always the first question to ask.

If you don't know who did the poll, you can't get the answers to all the other questions listed here. If the person providing poll results can't or won't tell you who did it, the results should not be reported, for their validity cannot be checked.

Reputable polling firms will provide you with the information you need to evaluate the survey. Because reputation is important to a quality firm, a professionally conducted poll will avoid many errors.

2. Who paid for the poll and why was it done?

You must know who paid for the survey, because that tells you—and your audience—who thought these topics are important enough to spend money finding out what people think.

Polls are not conducted for the good of the world. They are conducted for a reason—either to gain helpful information or to advance a particular cause.

It may be the news organization wants to develop a good story. It may be the politician wants to be re-elected. It may be that the corporation is trying to push sales of its new product. Or a special-interest group may be trying to prove that its views are the views of the entire country.

All are legitimate reasons for doing a poll.

The important issue for you as a journalist is whether the motive for doing the poll creates such serious doubts about the validity of the results that the numbers should not be publicized.

Private polls conducted for a political campaign are often unsuited for publication. These polls are conducted solely to help the candidate win—and for no other reason. The poll may have very slanted questions or a strange sampling methodology, all with a tactical campaign purpose. A campaign may be testing out new slogans, a new statement on a key issue or a new attack on an opponent. But since the goal of the candidate's poll may not be a straightforward, unbiased reading of the public's sentiments, the results should be reported with great care.

Likewise, reporting on a survey by a special-interest group is tricky. For example, an environmental group trumpets a poll saying the American people support strong measures to protect the environment. That may be true, but the poll was conducted for a group with definite views. That may have swayed the question wording, the timing of the poll, the group interviewed and the order of the questions. You should carefully examine the poll to be certain that it accurately reflects public opinion and does not simply push a single viewpoint.

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