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Polling: a look inside the machinery of public opinion surveys

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For example, question-crafting and order of questions when asked are vital to a valid survey. So are well-trained callers, like Mr. Jablonski, and the quality controls that guard their practices. Proper balance of land lines and cellphones matters in collecting a representative sample. How a data set is weighted – or made, via statistical calculations, to resemble the adult population of the nation – on the back end is critical, too.

Good polling is, in its own way, as intricately detailed as "successful heart surgery," says Frank Newport, the editor in chief of Gallup and the immediate past president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research: "Failures, wrong decisions, or low quality in any of these phases of the process can negatively affect the objective of using carefully selected samples of respondents to accurately represent the attitudes and self-reported behavior of an entire population of citizens."

So with this mission in mind, if Jablonski calls, should you steal away from your family to take the time to answer his questions? And if you don't, should you care how neighbors, friends, or faraway strangers responded?

Are polls a civic duty?

"Being called to do a survey is a privilege, not a burden," says Jon Krosnick, a Stanford University professor and expert in the psychology of political behavior and survey research methods. "Polls are taken so seriously that being given the opportunity to express your point of view is meaningful. It is a valuable opportunity, and it will make a difference."

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