POLLING AND T H E NEWS MEDIA ALBERT E. GOLLIN
The half-century during which Public Opinion Quarterly has been published has witnessed eruptions and deep changes in the American political and social landscape. In many cases, the forces shaping these changes (e.g., the end of isolationism, growing racial tolerance, heightened concern for the environment) have been registered and tracked, more or less faithfully, by public polls. The opinion polling enterprise itself has undergone significant changes in this period, growing from the isolated efforts of a handful of polling firms to its current status as a constitutive element of many nations in our Information Age. A number of stock-taking appraisals of polling in relation to aspects of the public opinion process have appeared in recent years (e.g., Gollin, 1980; Martin, 1984; Marsh, 1984). The goal of this essay is to highlight a few changes in the status of polling, with special reference to the role of the news media, to complement and extend the analysis of other changes in public opinion research in this anniversary issue. In its first year of publication (1937), the four issues of POQ contained practically no poll data. The 1936 Literary Digest debacle was the stimulus for articles on straw polls by Arch Crossley and Claude Robinson, who referred to a few political preference results. But the quantitative study of public opinion was still more an aspiration than a reality. However, "issue polls" were becoming a more prominent element of the work of the American Institute of Public Opinion (Gallup) and the Fortune Quarterly Survey (Roper), as Robinson (1937) noted in a trenchant essay on criticisms of political polls. Compare this 1937 sampling of writings on public opinion with the contents of any recent volume of POQ: the triumph of the quantitative is virtually complete. Moreover, this change in mode of discourse has won general acceptance among specialists and the public alike. The concept of public opinion has (largely due to polling) become coterminous with the results of public polls, however partial, misleading, or inconclusive they are as indicators. This is the first, most obvious change in the status of polling, as ALBERT E. GOLLIN is Vice-President and Associate Director of Research at the Newspaper Advertising Bureau. H e served as AAPOR's Secretary-Treasurer in 1981-82, and as its President in 1984-85. Public Opinion Quarterly Volume 51.S86-S94 O 1987 by the Amencan Association for Publlc Opin~onResearch Published by The University of Ch~cagoPress 10033-362W8710051-04(2)1$2.50
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reflected in the pages of POQ and elsewhere. Nowadays, poll and survey data on matters of public interest are voluminous, timely, and ubiquitous-all of which has lent them added force. A related change is the steady growth in the number of polling agencies or sources that account for this embarrassment of riches. And although one constant since 1937 has been the leading position played by the news media in sponsoring and publicizing the results of polls, here, too, changes have occurred that deserve consideration in weighing the current status of polling.
The Mass Media Encounter Polls At the dawn of the era of polls, the mass media-newspapers and certain magazines-paid to gain access to the polling operations and results of a few leading commercial pollsters. The Gallup Poll's syndicated columns (printed in more than 200 newspapers by the 1950s) were for several decades a primary source of poll data injected into the public domain. Mass-circulation magazines periodically made polls the centerpiece of articles on various topics in the 1930s and subsequently. Roper, Crossley, Harris, Yankelovich and other eponymous polls also gained recognition as their work entered the public domain via the media. State polls gathered and made available additional public opinion data to the readers of their sponsoring daily newspapers. And academic social scientists began to gain access to resources that enabled them to extend their work on attitudes by means of surveys of representative public samples (Cantril, 1944; Converse, 1987). Slowly, a new public information and feedback system was being instituted, gradually supplementing or supplanting the individual and collective indicators of popular sentiments and the legislative actions that had previously been accepted as valid manifestations of public opinion. The press, finding polls to be a highly useful means of supplementing their coverage of numerous topics, began to support polling as an integral feature of their news operations, instead of buying access to syndicated polling data or sponsoring special polls. Thus, the pressthe vital "organ" (shaper and mirror) of public opinion in standard treatments of the topic-became inevitably a leading actor in the evolving polling enterprise. This process was more discontinuous than the foregoing might suggest. Polling by the press prior to the 1960s was episodic, compared with its use of pollsters' services. But the growing use of polls by political candidates and special interest groups strengthened the interest on the part of leading newspapers, an interest that may also have been whetted by their growing sense of competition with TV news
Albert E. Gollin
operations, especially in election coverage (Mendelsohn and Crespi, 1970). The volume of poll results appearing in the press continued to expand, a reflection not only of greater availability and the press's weakness for handouts ("free" news) but also of the steady gain in respect for polls among key figures in the press's environment (government and business in particular), which lent greater prestige to polling. By the 1970s, therefore, a variety of influences flowed together to swell the demand for polling within the news media, "pulled" by the demonstrated value of polls for political coverage in particular. The economics of polling encouraged a sharing of costs, giving rise to the joint polling operations of CBS News and The New York Times, The Washington Post and ABC News, and other media couples. Usually these involved a marriage of a print and a broadcast medium. At times, one or more newspapers within a state joined forces with a TV station or with one another to cover an election or conduct a community poll. If the news value of polls was the main cause of the growth of the media polling enterprise, some social trends and technological improvements greatly facilitated the process. A recent assessment of survey research identified these generally influential factors: "Increased literacy and numeracy . . . almost universal access to the telephone . . . and increased power and decreased costs of automated information processing" (Turner and Martin, 1984, 1:29). Of these, the switch from face-to-face to telephone interviewing in the field of opinion research was arguably the most consequential. It broke down a number of barriers to the spread of news polling. Newspapers had telephone banks in their classified advertising or circulation offices that could be used to keep polling costs down. Random digit dialing and WATS line service further facilitated the efficient conduct of national or wide-area surveys. The advent of computerized data analysis and of CAT1 systems telescoped interviewing and data processing stages, and sped up the entire polling process. As a result, the turnaround time of a poll has shrunk from weeks (or months) in the 1930s to hours in the 1980s. A good indicator of the overall trend in news media polling, particularly as the media involved have long been models for emulation, can be seen in Table 1. Since 1975 the CBS News and New York Times polls, jointly and separately conducted, have expanded steadily in number and reach. (In recent years, they have undertaken independent or cooperative polls in Grenada, Mexico, and Japan.) Moreover, the sheer number of polls is an imperfect indicator of their news value. Typically, a single poll will yield multiple news stories or feature articles. The data also document the allure of state-level exit polls as a species of election polls-for a broadcast news service because they yield timely results for use in election-night coverage, and for a daily
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Table I. CBS News & New York Times Polls: 1975-1986 Jointly Conducted
CBS News Only
NY Times Only
National Other Exit National Other Exit National Other Exit Total
NOTE:NY Times summary excludes special-group surveys (e.g., athletes, convention delegates, MBAs). SOURCES: Marjorie Connelly, NY Times News Surveys; Keating Holland, CBS News Surveys. " One with the Los Angeles Times. One was in Grenada. Two were cross-national surveys; one was in Japan and U.S. One was cross-national; one was in Mexico.
paper because they offer rich analytical possibilities for next-day indepth coverage. It should be noted that CBS News pioneered in exit polling (Mitofsky, 1986).
News Polls: Strengths, Problems, Risks If social changes and technological progress combined to make actual what was merely feasible, in diffusing the use and quickening the pace of polling, certain benefits and problems of news polls soon became evident. One was the suspicion on the part of politicians, candidates, and political activists that the news media were thrusting themselves forward and using polls to alter the public agenda in one way or another-"making news" rather than reporting it. Then too, conflicts arose whenever advocates claimed that public opinion supported some policy or position only to have a news poll controvert the claim. And other accusations of improperly influencing the political process were made, especially during preelection periods, when candidates were
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soliciting support by making claims about electibility, only to have their assertions (sometimes based on a secret poll) rudely blunted by a press poll. One of the more sobering criticisms of media election polling was directed to exit polls. In this case, it was claimed that the outcomes of elections had been altered by the fact that summary judgments about candidates were being made available to prospective voters while the voting places were still open. The presumed effect was greater upon races in the western time zones, once the TV networks' election-night coverage had begun (Sudman, 1986). But in time, as local TV stations increasingly began to conduct exit polls and project or "characterize" local election outcomes, the complaints became more general. By 1984 the controversy had become sufficiently heated that AAPOR devoted a plenary session to an examination of the issues (Milavsky et al., 1985). Another problem accentuated by the proliferations of polls was the quality of the polling effort. Over time, given the stepped-up volume of local political polling by diverse organizations, a falloff in quality could be expected. As Crespi (1986) has shown in a recent study, this expectation appears to have been justified. He examined preelection polls that dealt with 446 state and local races (both primary and general elections) and found an appreciable difference in quality in polls carried out by independent pollsters vs. media ones, and (linked with this distinction) in polls done by interviewers in full-service polling firms vs. pickup interviewers hired by the media. In both cases, the former achieved greater accuracy. These polling context factors added to the explanatory value of higher (vs. lower) turnout elections, general (vs. primary) elections, and closeness to election day in accounting for variations in the accuracy achieved by local polls. As Witt (1987) has shown, the record of state-level polls in 1986, compiled by a growing number of independent pollsters and news media, continued to be dogged by conflicting results and misleading forecasts. Thus, it is clear that poll proliferation carries costs as well as benefits, seen from a variety of standpoints. While many established pollsters and larger media polling agencies have shown organizational learning in their polling efforts, many "newcomers" (especially local media polls) are compiling records that reflect no great credit upon them. Moreover, inconsistent or contradictory results are the inevitable by-products of a proliferation of issue polls, and preelection polls often miss out on the dynamics or misstate the closeness of contests. The risk that is posed by such a blemished record, as has long been pointed out, is a devaluation of polling and survey research-not only in the estimation of strategic groups of sponsors and users but also among the general public upon whose willingness to cooperate (by
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sharing their views with strangers) the entire polling enterprise is ultimately dependent. For the news media whose polls prove to be misleading or errant as guides to the state of public opinion, the risk assumes another shape: a loss of public trust or credibility as news sources.
Regulating Polls and Educating the News Media What are the counterweights to these threats to polling quality, which appear to be correlated with easy entry into the field by poorly trained or inexperienced people, the expanding volume of polling activities, and the growing appetite for polls as a news-gathering tool? Legal regulation, as a means of fostering professionalism and protecting the public, has always been one of the options. Were it to be successful in prescribing credentials for entry into the field and standards of acceptable practice, presumably both the quality of polling and of its practitioners could be controlled. And regulatory gestures have been made ever since the earliest years of polling as an infant industry. A bill was introduced in Congress in 1936 to regulate straw polls (Robinson, 1937). A decade later, in the wake of the disastrous experience in the 1948 elections, Gallup noted, "The question of government regulation of polls has come up in nearly every Congress during the last 20 years and is certain to be raised again in the eighty-first Congress" (Gallup, 1948:733). The current wave of attempts to regulate telemarketing practices is only the most recent assertion of a state prerogative with respect to certain types of encounters with the public, which could have a potential spillover effect on public polling. But in fact, as the pioneers of polling recognized, legal regulation has been a fairly remote possibility given the First Amendment's protections. The path of self-regulation was the preferred alternative, and it was pursued fitfully through the promulgation of norms and standards of professional conduct. It was hoped that these would exert peer pressure on active pollsters and socialize later entrants into the field. One strand of this effort-the specification of minimal disclosure standards to be adhered to by public reporting agencies (i.e., pollsters and the news media)-was meant to serve a mixed educational and control function, by making the press and the public, over time, increasingly aware of the scientific and craft elements that go into the proper conduct of public opinion research (Roper, 1983), thus encouraging them to become more critical and demanding as sponsors or consumers of poll results. The history of efforts made by AAPOR and other professional associations amply confirms the difficulty of devising clearcut standards
Albert E. Collin
applicable to all of the conditions under which polling is undertaken. Even the guidelines for minimal disclosure of polling methods, while less contentious as an issue than were (and are) performance or procedural standards, failed to win the assent of AAPOR members for almost 20 years after their initial proposal in 1947. And it wasn't until 1986 that these guidelines-formulated initially to assist polling firms and news media disseminators of poll results-were revised and made an integral part of AAPOR's Code of Professional Ethics and Practices, binding upon AAPOR members as individuals (Gollin, 1988). In 1968 the National Council on Public Polls began to promote additional efforts at self-regulation as well as media education, initially under the leadership of George Gallup and Arch Crossley, two veterans in the quest to elevate and reinforce polling standards. NCPP focused its attention on the news media, organizing special seminars and symposia on polling methods and applications prior to and after major elections (Cantril, 1980). In time, these ad hoc activities were supplemented by formal training sessions for journalists at university centers (e.g., Michigan, Connecticut) and by programs of press associations in recognition of the special editorial responsibilities that they assumed as polling agencies or users of poll data (Wilhoit and Weaver, 1980; Gollin, 1983). But it remains doubtful that improvements in the average level of quality in the conduct and reporting of polls have kept pace with the rate of diffusion of polling across the news media. In sum, the past 50 years have registered great progress in polling methods and practices and a concomitant growth in press and public awareness of the value of poll results as measures of public opinions and beliefs. But there remains a "clash of institutional imperatives" (Ladd, 1980) between the goals of surveys done for newsmaking purposes and those guided by academic, public policy, or other interests. As elements of the polling enterprise they have contributed significantly to the quantitative representation of public opinion that has gained both currency and acceptance around the world. Yet, paradoxically, the very success they have achieved has helped create conditions that could, if left unchecked, lead to their gradual decline. Poll-wariness and resistance to surveys appear to be growing (Kohut et al., 1986; Milavsky, 1987). Much of this is the result of the explosive growth in the use of the telephone for sales promotion, and the steady expansion of commercial and governmental research activities. By comparison, news polling could be seen as more acceptable because it informs or diverts a public whose views are gathered, refracted, and fed back to them by the media. But whatever contributes to a withdrawal of public. cooperation or to the degradation of polling quality can ultimately threaten the entire polling enterprise, and as we have seen, the news media have not been blameless in this regard. The
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struggle to elevate and reinforce professional standards in opinion research is therefore likely to be as fateful for the status of public opinion research, including news polling, in the next 50 years as it has in the preceding ones.
References Cantril, Albert H., ed. (1980) Polling on the Issues. Cabin John, MD: Seven Locks Press. Cantril, Hadley (1944) Gauging Public Opinion. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Converse, Jean M. (1987) Survey Research in the United States: Roots and Emergence 1890-1960. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. Crespi, Irving (1986) Accuracy in Pre-election Polling. (Unpublished report on a project sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the Russell Sage Foundation.) Gallup, George (1948) "On the regulation of polling." Public Opinion Quarterly 12:733-35. Collin, Albert E., ed. (1980) "Polls and the news media: A symposium." Public Opinion Quarterly 44(4). Collin, Albert E. (1983) "The election polls: What went wrong-and right?" The Bulletin of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. No. 656:24-26. Gollin, Albert E. (1988) "AAPOR and the media." In Paul B. Sheatsley (ed.), A History of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (forthcoming). Kohut, Andrew, et al. (1986) "Is there a crisis of confidence?" Public Opinion Quarterly 50:l-41. Ladd, Everett Carl1 (1980) "Polling and the press: The clash of institutional imperatives." Public Opinion Quarterly 44574-84. Marsh, Catherine (1984) "Do polls affect what people think?" Pp. 565-91 in Charles F. Turner and Elizabeth Martin (eds.), Surveying Subjective Phenomena, Vol. 2. New York: Russell Sage Foundation. Martin, L. John, ed. (1984) "Polling and the democratic consensus." The Annals, Vol. 472. Mendelsohn, Harold, and Irving Crespi (1970) Polls, Television, and the New Politics. Scranton, PA: Chandler. Milavsky, J. Ronald, et al. (1985) "Early calls on election results and exit polls: Pros, cons, and constitutional considerations." Public Opinion Quarterly 49: 1-18. Milavsky, J. Ronald (1987) "Improving the public's opinion of public opinion." Public Opinion Quarterly 51:436-47. Mitofsky, Warren J. (1986) "Polls and television news." Paper presented at an ESOMAR seminar, Strasbourg, France, 26-28 November. Robinson, Claude (1937) "Recent developments in the straw-poll field (parts 1&2)." Public Opinion Quarterly 1 (3):45-56; (4):42-52. Roper, Bums W. (1983) "Some things that concern me." Public Opinion Quarterly 47:303-09.
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Sudman, Seymour (1986) "Do exit polls influence voting behavior?" Public Opinion Quarterly 50:331-39. Turner, Charles F., and Elizabeth Martin, eds. (1984) Surveying Subjective Phenomena (2 vols.). New York: Russell Sage Foundation. Wilhoit, G. Cleveland, and David H. Weaver (1980) Newsroom Guide to Polls & Surveys. Reston: American Newspaper Publishers Association. Witt, Evans (1987) "Poll wars: State polls in the 1986 election." Public Opinion 9 (5):41-43.