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NEWS7 November 2019

Polling guidance issued for journalists

Media News Public Sector UK

UK – Ahead of the general election on 12th December, the Market Research Society (MRS) and independent press regulator Impress have issued guidance to journalists reporting on opinion polls.

The guidance has been produced with the aim of supporting journalists and helping to improve the reporting on complex issues.

Jane Frost, chief executive of MRS, said: “With a general election just around the corner and the possibility of another referendum beyond that, political polling has been thrown into the spotlight once again as people search for assurances and try to gauge voter sentiment. 

“We encourage all journalists to use this draft guidance to support their reporting in the coming weeks, to help them understand research issued by polling companies and ensure that they are reflecting the findings accurately in their reporting.”

The two organisations are inviting feedback on the draft guidance through a consultation until 20th November.  

Ed Procter, chief operating officer at Impress, added: “High-quality public interest journalism is a cornerstone of a healthy functioning democracy, particularly around election time when the public needs accountable and accurate information to navigate political messaging and misinformation.”

Speaking at a roundtable event to launch the guidance in London last night ( 6th November), Ben Page, chief executive of Ipsos Mori, called on the audience and professional bodies to call out things that are wrong.

“The challenge is that even reputable papers will do things in the heat of battle,” said Page. “We are all subject to selection bias – when you see something that is wrong, call it out.”

Cordelia Hay, associate partner at BritainThinks, discussed the tension between the “big picture” offered by public opinion polling and the detail to be gleaned from focus groups. “Polls give a good idea of public opinion and change over time but they don’t give you a good idea of detail, e.g. seat changes or the underlying tensions. Particularly with qualitative, there is value in looking in the whites of people’s eyes and seeing their body language.”

Hay discussed the ‘shy Tory’ effect researchers contended with at the beginning of the 90s, adding: “In focus groups, we get people saying ‘we think other people like Boris Johnson’s approach’ – they don’t want to admit they do.”

While acknowledging that it takes longer, and that shock polls make better headlines, Hay encouraged researchers to help journalists understand the detail to write more nuanced stories.

Sir John Curtice, senior research fellow at NatCen Social Research, urged journalists to look beyond the press release accompanying a poll and its top line figures. “Often I am asked to report on polls. Nine times out of 10, I say: ‘OK, send me the tables.’ Journalists should do the same – if we can encourage journalists to engage that practice in the pre-publication stage that would help.”

However, Steven Barnett, professor of communications at the University of Westminster, raised the issue of junior journalists not being confident enough to challenge senior staff and said: “Most journalists just don’t have the time to read a spreadsheet, even if they had the inclination.”

Journalists shouldn’t be expected to “have the brain of a social scientist,” said Barnett, but he advised: “Look at who has commissioned the poll – why do they want it out there? Apply a little bit of detachment and critical analysis.”

If journalists are concerned about misinterpreting a poll, they should speak to the researchers, added Hay. “Pick up the phone to the polling organisation or research agency. Most will be very happy to discuss with a journalist.”

The roundtable was chaired by Lord Lipsey, chair of the Select Committee on Political Polling and Digital Media behind ‘The politics of polling’ report.

Discussing the question of whether there needs to be more oversight of polling – the industry is self-regulated – Curtice said: “The problem is, I’ve had some really strong arguments about questionnaire design. There are differences in practices among professionals.”

Curtice also argued regulation would have hampered the innovation required in the industry. “Polling evolves constantly. Innovations on which large sections of the industry now depend would have been stymied [if a regulator had said no]. Given the challenge of polling, methodological innovation is crucial, and that might mean sometimes people doing things that might seem off the wall.” 

The guidance is available on the MRS and Impress websites.

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