Guide to Writing Accurate Stories on Political Polls

A picture of a politician
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It's not always easy to write news stories about politics. Everywhere you look, someone is trying to mislead you. This includes writing about political polls. There are aspects of political polls that must be included in your story in order for your information to be accurate and complete.

Otherwise, you might find yourself being accused of political bias. After all, politicians are often eager to blame the media for their own benefit.

Here are 4 steps to writing accurate stories on political polls: 

Reference Polling Details

It's important to include these basic facts:

  • Who conducted the poll
  • How many people were sampled
  • When were they polled
  • What question was asked

Who conducted the poll: Was it an impartial source or did a political group create a "poll" to show that its candidate is in the lead? You must determine whether the poll was scientific, which means it was conducted by a research organization, news outlet or university and not by a campaign. 

How many people were sampled: A statewide poll of 500 people may be statistically representative of the public at large, but 50 is probably too small to be accurate.

When were they polled: It matters if some significant event occurred that could skew the results. Candidate "A" may have been in the lead until his sex scandal broke. If the poll was taken before that bombshell information, it may not represent where the race stands currently.

What question was asked: Pollsters, especially those working for groups that want to sway the results, can ask leading questions in order to get the results they want. "Do you support candidate 'A' even if he's involved in a sex scandal?" is an example of how a question can be slanted in order to manipulate the outcome.

Know the Margin of Error

The margin of error is also a critical component of any story on a political poll. There are many statistical-related reasons for this, but let's concentrate on the accuracy of your story.

Let's say candidate "A" is leading candidate "B" by two points, 51% to 49%. The poll has a four-point error margin.

It is not accurate to say that "A leads B" without referencing the margin of error. That's because "A" could be anywhere from 47-55% and "B" 45-53%. So it's possible that "B" actually leads "A" in the poll.

To be accurate, you could say the two candidates are statistically tied. Or you could say that "A leads B" by two points, but that the numbers are within the poll's error margin. Just as long as you reference the error margin in some way.

Watch Out for Illegitimate Polls

Beware of writing stories about illegitimate polls that have no statistical integrity to back them up. That would include polls on websites that allow multiple votes or would allow a user to delete their computer's cookies to be able to tilt the numbers.

Even if a respected news organization has a poll on its website, that doesn't mean the results will be useful. A website poll that asks, "Do you want to pay more taxes?" may have 100% saying no and 0% saying yes with 50,000 votes.

Without careful statistical analysis, the poll is meaningless.

Write Your Story

It is easy to get caught up in the numbers and allow that to affect the accuracy of your writing. For instance, saying a candidate "plunged" in the polls isn't accurate if he only slipped a couple of points. Choosing the wrong words could have you accused of liberal media bias.

Beware of copy and pasting an analysis of the polls that comes from a campaign. The campaign may issue a press release, saying its candidate is "soaring" because the poll shows his support has doubled. If he went from 2% to 4% support, the "doubling" is statistically correct, but he could still be far behind the leaders. 

That is an example of how politicians manipulate the media to try to win elections. A careful reporter should always be wary of a campaign's interpretation of poll numbers.

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