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Resources for Journalists
May 2016: PRESS RELEASE
Understanding and Interpreting Opinion Polls:
New International Online Course for Journalists
A Media Guide to Survey Research
The World Association for Public Opinion Research (WAPOR) is dedicated to developing the science of survey research and promoting its appropriate use around the world. It specifically seeks to “promote international cooperation and exchange” with journalists and inform them about “the appropriate forms of publishing poll results.” To further these goals, WAPOR here provides information to journalists on learning about survey research and about what facts they should know when using surveys in a news story.
Learning about Survey Research
Just as journalists who cover politics need to be familiar with the political system and reporters covering legal cases need to be well-versed in judicial procedures, journalists using surveys need at least a basic grounding in survey research. As Katherine Wallman, president of the American Statistical Association (ASA) has noted, “statistical literacy” is required to report stories using surveys and other statistical data (Wallman, Katherine K., “Enhancing Statistical Literacy: Enriching Our Society,” Journal of the American Statistical Association, 88 (March, 1993), 1-8).
the best way for a journalist to gain competency about surveys is to complete an advanced degree in statistics or in quantitative social science. For a list of some graduate programs specializing in survey research see (http://www.aapor.org). Of course this possibility is not practical for many journalists.
a number of organizations offer short courses ranging from a few hours to a few weeks in survey methods. These include courses at:
- The Essex Summer School in Social Science Data Analysis and Collection (http://www.essex.ac.uk/methods)
- The GESIS Summer School in Survey Methodology (www.gesis.org)
- The Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research Summer Program in Quantitative Methods of Social Research at the University of Michigan (http://www.icpsr.umich.edu)
- The Joint Program in Survey Methodology at the University of Maryland (http://www.jpsm.umd.edu/)
- The Summer Institute in Survey Research Technique at the University of Michigan (http://www.isr.umich.edu/src/si)
- The annual meetings of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) (http://www.aapor.org/).
there are on-line courses and webinars, some especially designed for journalists:
- AAPOR/Poynter Institutes’ Understanding and Interpreting Polls at http://www.newsu.org
- AAPOR Webinars at http://www.aapor.org
- CASRO Webinars at https://www.casro.org
- ESOMAR Webinars at www.esomar.org
one can attend the general sessions of the annual conferences of the leading survey-research associations:
- The World Association for Public Opinion Research (held in a three year rotation with Europe, North America and elsewhere) (http://wapor.org)
- The ESOMAR (the World Association of Research Professionals) (www.esomar.org)
- The various national, survey-research associations such as those listed by ESOMAR (www.esomar.org/)
- In addition, WAPOR frequently holds regional conferences around the world (http://wapor.org/seminars-events/)
there are a number of publications specially designed to inform journalists about surveys:
- The British Polling Council, 2020. A Quick Guide for Journalists to the Use and Reporting of Opinion Polls|
- Friend, Cecilia and Challenger, Don., Contemporary Editing. 3rd edition. New York: Routledge, 2013.
- Gawiser, Seldon R. and Witt, G. Evans, A Journalist’s Guide to Public Opinion Polls. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994
- Gawiser, Sheldon R. and Witt, G. Evans, 20 Questions a Journalist Should Ask About Poll Results. 3rd edition. National Council for Public Polls (NCCP) at http://www.ncpp.org/?q=node/4
- Meyer, Philip, The New Precision Journalism. 4th edition. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. See http://www.rowmanlittlefield.com/
- Worcester, Robert M., Journalists’ Guide to the Publication of Opinion Survey Results. London: Market & Opinion Research International, 1987.
there are similar materials aimed at informing general audiences about surveys. While not specifically geared to journalists, they also provide highly useful information about surveys:
- American Association for Public Opinion Research, Best Practices for Survey and Public Opinion Research. n.d. at http://www.aapor.org
American Statistical Association, “ASA Series: What is a Survey?” at http://www.amstat.org
- Asher, Herbert, Polling and the Public: What Every Citizen Should Know. 11th edition. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2011.
Council of American Survey Research Organizations (CASRO), Research Guidelines at https://www.casro.org
- Donsbach, Wolfgang and Traugott, Michael W, eds., The Sage Handbook of Public Opinion Research. Los Angeles: Sage, 2008.
- ESOMAR/WAPOR Guide to Opinion Polls. 2009 at www.esomar.org
- Lavrakas, Paul J. and Traugott, Michael W., eds., Elections Polls, the News Media, and Democracy. New York: Chatham House, 2000.
- Traugott, Michael W. and Paul J. Lavrakas, The Voter’s Guide to Election Polls. 4th edition. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008.
- van Hamersveld, Mario and Cees de Bont, eds., ESOMAR Market Research Handbook. 5th edition. Amsterdam: ESOMAR, 2007. See www.esomar.org/
- Wilhoit, G. Cleveland and Weaver, David H., Newsroom Guide to polls and Surveys. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990.
there are various professional journals that can be consulted for the latest developments in survey research. These include the top two professional journals, WAPOR’s International Journal of Public Opinion Research and AAPOR’s Public Opinion Quarterly. Other important journals include the Field Methods, International Journal of Market Research, the Journal of Marketing Research, the Journal of Official Statistics, the Polling Report, Research World, Survey Methodology, and Survey Research Methods.
The Needed Facts about Surveys
Whenever using a survey in a story, journalists need to obtain basic methodological information on the data. The WAPOR Code of Professional Ethics and Practices (http://www.unl.edu/wapor/ethics.html) lists essential facts that should be included in all reports on surveys and therefore known about a survey that is used in a news story. In abbreviated form they are:
- who commissioned the survey
- who conducted the survey
- the purpose of the survey
- the universe the survey covers
- sampling method and procedures
- non-response rate
- sample size (number of cases)
- weighting procedures (if used)
- data collection method
- when data collected
- characteristics of interviewers and coders and their training
- copy of questionnaire
- results for sub-samples vs. whole sample
- precision of findings and sampling error when applicable
- standard, scientific use of technical terms
Moreover, there is a high degree of agreement amongst survey-research organizations about what elements of surveys are crucial to report. See the similar, but not identical, disclosure lists of AAPOR, CASRO, and NCPP.
WAPOR Constitution, Article 2, Sections 1 and 2.