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Politics and Economy:
Margin of Error?
More on This Story:
Poll Need to Knows

Polling Best Practices

The National Council on Public Polls has a list of questions all journalists should ask before citing a poll. They are useful questions for a media-savvy public as well.

  1. Who did the poll?
  2. Who paid for the poll and why was it done?
  3. How many people were interviewed for the survey?
  4. How were those people chosen?
  5. What area (nation, state, or region) or what group(teachers, lawyers, Democratic voters, etc.) were these people chosen from?
  6. Are the results based on the answers of all the people interviewed?
  7. Who should have been interviewed and was not?
  8. When was the poll done?
  9. How were the interviews conducted?
  10. What about polls on the Internet or World Wide Web? (There's no sample control on the Web.)
  11. What is the sampling error for the poll results?
  12. Who's on first? (The ordering of choices, especially candidates, can affect responses.)
  13. What other kinds of factors can skew poll results?
  14. What questions were asked?

These questions are annotatated at the National Council on Public Polls web site. You can also find an Ethics and Standards guide to polling at the American Association for Public Opinion Research.

You can often obtain the full poll from the polling institution. As public opinion expert Daniel Yankelovich pointed out to Bill Moyers, it is important to question polls.

BILL MOYERS: What's your advice to people on reading surveys and polls? How do we become, as citizens, poll savvy?

DANIEL YANKELOVICH: Good question. I think that if I had to make one single suggestion it would be to ask yourself the question, when you look at the poll results, is this an issue where people have made up their minds? You may not know, but if you see inconsistencies, if the wording of the question changes the response. And you can ask yourself, have you made up your mind about Social Security, or Medicare or drugs for seniors, or more money for schools and things of that sort. If you haven't made up your mind, the poll and the... people that are polling are like you and they haven't made up their minds, you can't rely on the poll results. (Read more of the interview.)

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