Freedom to Publish Public Opinion Research: The State of the World

Contributed by: Marita Carballo, Robert Chung, Timothy Johnson

The 2017 Freedom to Publish Public Opinion Research Report – Overview

Findings from the joint WAPOR/ESOMAR 2017 report on Freedom to Publish Public Opinion Research were presented during a panel session at the 71st Annual Conference in Marrakesh. This is the 6th report in this series, which began in 1984. The main themes of the study have remained the same, with a focus on national poll embargoes prior to elections, restrictions on conducting and publishing exit polls, awareness and conformity to professional codes and guidelines, and evaluation of overall poll quality and problems in conducting polls.

The survey was fielded between July 11 and October 1, 2017, with responses obtained from 133 nations. Multiple sources were employed to identify persons qualified to report on conditions in their country. These included outreach to WAPOR and ESOMAR members, persons who responded to the 2012 Freedom to Publish Survey, and national representatives to various international survey collaborations, including the various Barometers, World Values Survey, and ISSP programs.

Poll Embargoes: Overall, no blackout period was reported in 32% of the nations responding to the survey. One-third reported blackout periods of 1-6 days, and 23% reported periods of 7 days or more. The median blackout period was 4.5 days (among those reporting a blackout period), with a range between 1-150 days. Another 5% reported having a blackout period, but were uncertain of the length, and 2% were uncertain as to whether or not a blackout period was in effect. A final 5% reported that election polls were not conducted in their county.

Exit Polls: There was considerable variability in regards to restrictions on the conduct of exit polls. Thirty percent indicated there were no restrictions, and another 17% reported no restrictions – although no exit polls had been conducted to date in those nations. Nineteen percent indicated exit polls cannot be conducted inside polling stations, and 9% reported they could not be conducted within a specified distance from polling places. In 11% of the nations surveyed, exit polls could not be conducted at all, and respondents in 14% of these nations were uncertain.

Professional Codes and Guidelines: Majorities of national informants indicated being somewhat or very familiar with several sets of professional Codes and Guidelines. These include the ESOMAR/WAPOR Guidelines for the Publication of Public Opinion Poll results (70%), the ICC/ESOMAR International Code on Market, Opinion and Social Research and Data Analytics (62%), the WAPOR Code of Ethics (55%), and the WAPOR Guidelines for exit polls and election forecasts (51%). Respondents felt, though, that conformity with these codes and guidelines was less consistent, with only 21% reporting that most pollsters conformed with them, compared to 26%, 28%, and 7%, respectively, who indicated that some, few and no pollsters conformed (18% did not know).

Poll Quality: The methodological reporting of public opinion polls was rated as considerably higher than the journalistic reporting of them. Two-thirds (66%) felt that methodological reporting was of a very high or somewhat high quality, whereas a plurality of 49% felt that journalist reporting was of a somewhat or very low quality.

Problems Conducting Polls: Finally, there was considerable sentiment that it is becoming more difficult to do public opinion research in many parts of the world as a consequence of costs and declining response rates. Specifically, 54% of all nations identified budget cuts and the increasing costs of data collection as contributing somewhat or a great deal to increased difficulty conducting research. In addition, declining response rates were cited by 49%, respondent unwillingness by 39%, inaccessibility of respondents due to physical barriers by 28%, data privacy concerns by 27%, respondent inaccessibility due to crime/insecurity by 20%, and new government regulations by 19%.

Regional Differences: There was considerable variability in polling conditions across world regions. The following reports provide regional summaries presented during the panel session. They speak to the commonalities and differences in freedom to publish public opinion research around the world.

You can find the report on our website.

Timothy Johnson
Chair, WAPOR Professional Standards
Director, Survey Research Laboratory
University of Illinois at Chicago

Freedom to Publish Opinion Polls: Latin America Outlook

In our WAPOR global survey about the Freedom to Publish Opinion Polls, half of the governments from the countries studied limit the publication of poll results before elections. However, it is Latin America the region with the highest amount of nations reporting any restrictions. Seventeen out of nineteen countries surveyed last year in the region have a pre-election blackout period, being the Dominican Republic and Suriname the exceptions.

In terms of the length of embargoes, our region has also the lengthiest ones. Only 5 countries out of the 17 that declared having a pre-election poll embargo have less than a week of blackout periods. Bolivia and Honduras are not allowed to publish pre-election poll results for 30 days or more. In Panama the embargo lasts 20 days; in Chile, El Salvador and Paraguay 15 days each. While the median blackout duration in South America is seven days, the one in Central America is more than two weeks. The only other region with a higher median of blackout periods is Africa, due in part to the extremely long embargoes in two of the six countries studied. Yet, most countries in Africa do not have blackout periods.  

Half the countries in Central America and more than a third of the countries in South America report that there is a governmental body that controls the conduct of election polls. Moreover, several countries such as Ecuador and Chile have faced lately new governmental restrictions or legal issues against electoral polls. In the case of Ecuador, in April 2017 government forces confiscated computers and arrested two CEDATOS employees — now released — for what appeared to be a response to disagreements involving the findings from exit polls for the Presidential election. A few months later in Chile a law banning the publications of poll results in the last 15 days before an election took effect before their presidential primaries. The free publication of election polls not only improves their accuracy but is intrinsically a part of the democratic process and the free flow of information, reasons why WAPOR strongly condemned these acts.

The future outlook in the region does not look promising either. While 8% of the countries globally expect longer pre-election blackout periods to be imposed in the next few years, one in four South American countries expects longer blackout periods. Central American countries are even more pessimistic about the future. 

Blackout periods are not the only difficulty that Latin American pollsters face. They claim -more than elsewhere- that polls have become generally much harder to conduct in the last 5 years. The main reasons contributing to this are budget cuts (53%) and lower response rates (47%), even in higher proportions than in Asia and Africa.  In Central America, issues about physical barriers to interviewing and general insecurity over crime are also most common whereas costs for data collection is one the biggest issues in South America.

In terms of the quality of poll methodology, while globally 66% of the countries studied believe its quality to be good, a little less (56%) thought the same in Latin America. What is interesting about this figure is that it captures 70% of countries in South America to have a positive appreciation of the quality of the polls, whereas only 33% in Central American countries do so. This demonstrates the perception of a poll methodological quality issue in Central America.

In the region as a whole the quality of journalistic reporting of poll results is questioned. Among the issues that are seen as contributing to the low quality of journalistic reporting in Latin America we encountered:  a lack of understanding of polls (82%), that only topline results are being published (76%) and that relevant details are not being reported (71%). These showcase the necessity for us to deepen the information and the training we offer for journalist.

In a similar vein, the adherence to international codes and guidelines seems low. Only 3 countries in Latin America claim most pollsters conform to the standards, namely Colombia, Panama and Uruguay. Then in Brazil, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela they say some conform to these guidelines. Thus, 41% of the countries surveyed in Latin America believe most or some of the pollsters follow these codes. Only in Africa pollsters are believed to follow the guidelines even less than in Latin America, with only 28% the African countries represented saying that most or some of the pollsters take them into account. The existence of codes has their greatest impact in Europe, where not only they are well-known but 56% of countries say most or some pollsters follow them.

These findings allow us to pin point the issues pollsters are facing in the region. Thus, we will intensify our efforts from WAPOR to better disseminate and promote our professional standards as well as our guide to opinion polls to address the challenges pollsters are facing in the region, as well as our guidelines for exit polls and the resources we have for journalists to improve the reporting of poll results.

Marita Carballo
Head of Voices! Research and Consultancy
President of the National Academy of Social and Political Science in Argentina
Vice-President/President Elect WAPOR

Freedom to Publish Opinion Polls: The Asian View

About a month before our 71st WAPOR Annual Conference held in Marrakesh of Morocco, on May 25, 2018, a panel discussion was held in Taipei to discuss the preliminary findings of our WAPOR global survey about the Freedom to Publish Opinion Polls. The panel was one of the most important sessions of WAPOR Asia’s Inaugural Conference held in Taipei under the theme of “New Era of Public Opinion Research in Asia”. Representatives from Hong Kong, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan and the United States contributed to the discussion, highlights of which were presented in the Marrakesh Conference on June 30, 2018. This article is a brief summary of the presentation.

Compared to other countries covered by the global survey, Asia seems to be doing slightly better than others in terms of restricting the publication of pre-election polls. Of the 37 Asian countries covered in this question, 46% do not have any restriction compared to 38% of non-Asian countries. However, there is no reason for complacency because (a) 54% of Asian countries actually have some restrictions, and (b) the most populous country in Asia does not restrict pre-election polls because it does not have open and free elections. Likewise, Asian colleagues should not rejoice too quickly when the survey says that 36% of Asian countries have “no restriction on exit polls where some exit polls have been conducted to date” as compared to the 27% for non-Asian countries, because if we look at the other end, 21% of Asian countries “cannot conduct exit polls at all”, while the figure for non-Asian countries is only 8%.

In terms of the quality of poll methodology, Asian representatives generally evaluate polls conducted in their own countries less positively than non-Asian representatives. Asian figures stand at 17% “very high quality” plus 38% “somewhat high quality”, while non-Asian figures stand at 23% plus 46%. Where conformity to professional codes and guidelines are concerned, 10% of Asian representatives report that “most pollsters” in their country confirm, another 35% say “some pollsters” conform, while 23% plus 25% of non-Asian country representatives say the same. On how journalists handle polls, representatives around the world are dissatisfied. Asian representatives tend to regress more to the middle.

All in all, the situation around the world is far from ideal, and Asian countries need to do a lot more. At this stage, we only have figures comparing Asia with the rest of the world. When we have the global figures broken down by continents and sub-regions, we would be able to dissect the problems in more detail. To pave the way for these further studies, WAPOR Asia at its Taipei Conference has come up with these suggestions:

1. The freedom to publish opinion polls should become a core theme of all WAPOR annual conferences, so that WAPOR members can regularly review global development in terms of (a) the freedom situation and (b) the state of professional development. WAPOR Asia will definitely do this.

2. WAPOR country representatives should see it as their duty to monitor development in their own country and report back to the WAPOR community annually, either by means of country reports or panel presentations. WAPOR Asia will certainly ask its country representatives to do so, they are ex officio members of the WAPOR Asia Council by constitutional design.

3. WAPOR should also encourage ordinary WAPOR members to contribute to these discussions by hosting a free online platform, say, by the name of Opinedia, whereby members can freely edit the content of their own country. Coupled with the uploading of official WAPOR country reports, such a two pronged approach would be able to integrate both top-down and bottom-up efforts to paint a timely picture of how the world is like.

Our WAPOR Constitution says, “Public opinion is a critical force in shaping and transforming society… the Association shall… promote in each country of the world the right to conduct and publish scientific research…” Modeling on this, the constitution of WAPOR Asia has clearly spelled out the aims and objectives of WAPOR Asia – “to promote in each country or region in Asia the right to conduct and publish scientific research on what the people and its groups think… [and] to assist and promote the development and publication of public opinion research in Asia…”

Looking ahead, we should always remember our dual mission to safeguard the freedom to publishing opinion research and to promote the professional standards of conducting and reporting them. I suggest we see it as our prerogative and duty to fill our future annual conferences with discussions on the issues of freedom to publish polls, and the quality of conducting and reporting polls.

Robert Chung
Director of Public Opinion Programme, The University of Hong Kong
President of WAPOR Asia