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Media Polls Do "Little to Serve the Public Interest," Opines Prof. Jeff McCall '76

Media Polls Do "Little to Serve the Public Interest," Opines Prof. Jeff McCall '76

August 20, 2016

"Every major broadcast and cable network, and many major newspapers, feel compelled to sponsor their own political polls," observes Jeffrey M. McCall, professor of communication at DePauw University. "But the polling conducted today by news outlets, and even universities, does little to serve the public interest."

In a column which is being published in a number of newspapers across the nation this weekend, Dr. McCall says that polls instead "serve the branding and marketing interests of the sponsoring organizations. That financial motivation drives the polling frenzy more than any sense of civic duty."

Acoording to the professsor, "When CNN, Fox News or NBC releases periodic poll results, the news channels benefit from having those results reported across the journalistic world, raising the profile of the respective news outlets. Polls provide journalists with something to report about, fill time and endlessly analyze. That's easier for news organizations than covering real issues and providing election news of substance. Such 'horse race' coverage diminishes the process of democracy to the level of a sporting event."

What's just as troubling to McCall is that polls have been proven wrong throughout history, and may be less reliable than ever today. "A major problem with polling accuracy today is that growing numbers of Americans refuse to have their opinions compiled into some mysterious and ill-defined pollster's data base," he writes. "The Pew Research Center reports that the response rate for public participation in polls is now just 9 percent. The rate was 36 percent just 20 years ago.

"Multiple reasons account for this decline. Fewer people have landline phones. Caller ID allows people to ignore calls from numbers they suspect as nuisance calls. Citizens are more prone to keep their opinions private in an era of polarization and fear of the establishment. The bottom line is that it is harder for even the brightest statisticians to verify that people who are willing to answer pollsters' questions are representative of the people who aren't."

The column concludes, "A news media that want to serve the public should focus coverage on issues and candidate qualifications. The only essential poll that demands a place on the news agenda is the one taken on Election Day, when the voters speak through their ballots."

Access the complete essay at the website of Pennsylvania's Allentown Morning Call.

A 1976 graduate of DePauw, Jeff McCall is a former journalist and author of Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences. The professor is regularly called upon to comment in stories on media matters. He was cited last night in a report on NPR's Marketwatch and earlier this week in an article on the upcoming presidential debates in The Hill, as well an August 1 Huffington Post essay.

Source: Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call