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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Polling the People: Shortcomings of the Press

Wisconsin just went through a Supreme Court election with a historically high voter turnout rate, but there weren’t any polls in the run-up to election day.  In fact, statewide polls in general are lacking, according to members of a panel on “Polling, Partisanship and Polarization” at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Third Annual Ethics Conference on Friday.

The panel – political scientists Charles Franklin and Ken Goldstein, UW journalism professor Dhavan Shah and WISC-TV’s Colin Benedict – explored multiple pitfalls the media faces in dealing with polling and public opinion on both the state and national levels.

ethics conference program

photo by Brett Blaske

If the four agreed on anything, it was the necessity for better numeracy and data analysis skills among journalists.  Goldstein stressed the need for more reporters with quantitative expertise in the newsroom.  Benedict agreed and admitted to many writers lacking these skills.  Shah argued the problem should be dealt with through education – teach current and future journalists about polling and statistics.

Past this, the panel also was unanimous in their calls for more and better polling data, particularly by media outlets as well as on in-state opinion.  Goldstein said that since coming to Wisconsin in 2000, he could not recall a single state newspaper conducting its  own poll.  Benedict explained that news organizations tend to not conduct their own polls because polling is expensive and polls  tend to draw accusations of bias by news consumers.

The panelists talked of other experiences and troubles with polling and polarization.  Franklin spoke of his work with the popular poll aggregation site, which he co-founded, and his troubles with the reporting of polls.  News media should not report on the latest polls as singular events, he said, but rather put recent polls in the context of past ones.

As a voice from within the media, Benedict spoke of the difficulties news organizations face in reporting on polling.  He explained how he thought partisan media will not crowd out nonpartisan sources, as viewers still seek out unbiased “trusted sources” to decipher current information and events in an understandable way.

Goldstein was less optimistic on this point, arguing that solid, nonpartisan media may in fact be doomed due to news organizations wanting to attract niche audiences by propagating different political viewpoints.  However, he did think that the news world is less elitist than ever thanks to the Internet, and news consumers can seek out as much information as they like past the nightly news programs, if they so desire.

Shah discussed the polarization of media consumption by viewers.  Television viewing patterns for Republicans and Democrats varies widely and goes beyond news and political programs.  Moreover, fewer people are watching the less partisan nightly news programs and more are watching the partisan cable news shows.

In the end, the panelists agreed with one another more than they differed.  They all lamented the lack of reliable, high quality state polling data, as well as the media’s lack of expertise in explaining statistics.


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