Measurement Menaces of the Month: Political Polls and the Media that Report Them

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On the Media’s Bob Garfield recently dug into today’s political polls and reveals how incredibly inaccurate the media has been in reporting their results, calling them a “toxic disregard for the truth.” We couldn’t agree more.

The fundamental problem is that the media neglects to report the margin of error, which often makes rankings meaningless. If a margin of error is 5% and there is less than a 5% difference in poll results between Bush, Trump, and Huckabee, then it is pointless to rank them. They might be tied, they might be ranked 1, 2, and 3, they might be ranked in any other permutation. All just as likely.

Never mind that the media is projecting the polling data in an attempt to predict events that won’t take place for a year. In other words, most polls today are really only measuring name recognition.

Garfield raises another excellent point: Many polls which the media call “unscientific” are worse than just unsound, they’re completely worthless research. Thus the results are useless at best, and often misleading. As Garfield says, “No perfunctory shrug of an acknowledgment excuses journalists from passing along counterfeit data, any more than a pharmacist can be excused for passing along counterfeit medications, just because he calls the formula ‘unscientific’ beforehand. ”

And so we are pleased to name today’s misleading pollsters and the media that report on them this month’s Measurement Menaces.  ∞

Paine Publishing provides communications measurement training and education. Katie Delahaye Paine provides customized measurement training and services.

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