Readers question polls on far-off elections

April 24, 2005|By Paul Moore

Two recent front-page stories based on a Sun-sponsored poll of Maryland voters have generated lots of critical reaction from readers.

The complaints reflect a continuing journalistic discussion about how polls should be used.

A poll-based article that led the paper last Sunday reported that Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley was slightly ahead of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in a potential 2006 race for governor. The story also noted that voters had an overall positive view of Ehrlich's tenure.

On Monday's front page, an article, "Steele attracts strong support in Senate race," detailed Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele's strong poll numbers in a potential U.S. Senate contest in 2006. It also showed Kweisi Mfume as the strongest current Democratic candidate.

The poll was conducted for The Sun by Potomac Inc., a respected polling firm based in Bethesda. A cross section of 1,000 likely voters in the 2006 general election was questioned. The poll had a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points.

Some readers wondered why The Sun was giving such prominent display to stories speculating about the outcome of elections more than 18 months away. Others suggested that The Sun might be injecting itself into the political process by giving early favorites a boost in fund raising and recognition.

"I think it is sad that The Sun has been reduced to putting a non-news story like the Ehrlich-O'Malley poll piece at the top of the front page," said reader Dan S. "The election is still so far away that the relevance of this poll and the reporting about it is of very dubious value."

Reader Hal Willard wrote: "I think polls seldom produce anything but entertainment. They are merely indications of what some people may be thinking at the time the poll was taken. Putting a poll on `page one' gives it more credence than it deserves."

A. Robert Kaufman, a Baltimore political activist and a declared Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, said the polls "were just a early popularity contest to see who is major candidate and who is minor candidate."

"That puny poll of 1,000 voters did not justify the space devoted to it," said Georgia Burch Benson.

Sun editors stand behind their decision to commission the poll and defend the prominent display of the stories.

"We were interested in public views on the very contentious legislative session that just concluded," said Mike Leary, assistant managing editor for local news, noting a front-page story featuring opinions on slots and funding for stem-cell research.

"Another motivating factor is that the most intensive political season in a generation has begun in Maryland, with a heated governor's race and a wide-open U.S. Senate race," Leary said. "We could make educated guesses about the relative strength of candidates, but it's better to have meaningful data."

But some journalists worry that "horse race" stories that can come from polls can overshadow more useful coverage of the candidates' character and issues. Polls should be a starting point for reporting, not an end in themselves, they say.

Others believe that journalists lack the sophisticated understanding of survey techniques needed to shape poll questions or clearly understand what they signal. Newspapers must place a lot of trust in their pollsters, they say.

And, with increased consumer resistance to telephone survey research, the challenge of finding people who fairly represent public views is growing.

"There ... is an increasing array of technical hurdles for polls because many people no longer want to participate," said Jim Naughton, the former president of the Poynter Institute, a noted journalism research and teaching center. "I believe that the nonparticipation rate has climbed significantly. One would think that scientifically, this could seriously diminish the randomness of a survey."

The question of when stories based on polls should be used on Page One is challenging -- like most decisions related to determining news values. Every day, editors must organize Page One to guide readers to the most important news of the day while also offering unique appeal.

Poll stories clearly offer unique appeal, but readers, and editors, might debate their news value, depending on how they are reported and what else is happening on any given day.

State editor Diane Fancher says The Sun has good reason to trust its pollster. She praises Potomac's methodology and thoroughness.

"It took several thousand calls to get the sampling of 1,000 people who reflected the racial, partisan, age and geographic breakdown of the likely voters," Fancher said.

It was Potomac's polling during the 2002 gubernatorial campaign that makes Sun editors so confident. With a week to go before the election, Potomac's poll had Ehrlich with a lead of 4 percentage points. Final election results showed Ehrlich winning by 4 percentage points.

"Potomac called the election, while most others were still saying the race was a dead heat," Fancher said.

Paul Moore's column appears on Sundays.

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