August 28, 2018

With midterm election season approaching, journalists are bracing for the onslaught of data that comes from nonstop election coverage.

But do reporters actually know what it means?

What’s the margin of error? Is this push poll data useful? Is the sample random? Does it matter if it is?*

The American Association for Public Opinion Research is helping journalists navigate these tricky waters, including in an upcoming Poynter News University webinar on September 13.

“We want to make sure we are a reference for reporters so they can write about polling and feel confident about what they are doing,” explained Emily Guskin, a polling analyst at The Washington Post and the chair of AAPOR’s journalism education subcommittee.

Guskin said that if journalists aren’t knowledgeable about the basics of polling, they can inadvertently report misleading information.

“Data can be misleading if you don’t understand polls,” Guskin said. “It’s not exact; that’s why we have margins of error.” She also advised monitoring methodology, including who conducted the poll and how it was done.

Monitoring polling data for changes or aberrations can be useful for extrapolating stories, even if all polls are not created equal, Guskin said. But in order to better do that task, journalists have to be prepared when examining this information.

A section of AAPOR’s site is dedicated to assisting journalists in their reporting, which includes an FAQ, access to AAPOR leadership for quotes and, the newest addition, a one-page cheat sheet on the specific things journalists should know when covering polls.

AAPOR's quick cheat sheet for journalists gives the who, what, when and how of reporting on polls (you have to supply the “why” yourself). The one-page primer covers sampling, weighting, and links to resources that can help reporters find national polls on subjects from sports to politics.

Helpful tips include:

  • In election polls, a candidate usually needs to be ahead by 1.5 to 2 times the margin of error for the lead to be statistically significant.
  • Election polls aren’t meant to be predictive; rather, they give a snapshot of a particular moment in time.

Founded in 1947 by a group of public opinion researchers, AAPOR considers itself the “leading association of public opinion and survey research professionals.” It comprises more than 2,000 members, produces three academic journals, maintains a code of ethics and recently helped spearhead the Transparency Initiative, in which member organizations agree to disclose methodological procedures.

For more tips for covering polls and elections, check out online learning at Poynter’s News University, done in conjunction with AAPOR.

Need a little primer or refresher on how to cover polls in advance of the midterms? Are you hoping to have an expert available to field your burning questions? Join Poynter’s News University and Guskin on September 13 for a 30-minute webinar: “Reporting on Polls: Headlines, Margins of Error and Other Fundamentals.” By covering fundamentals and sharing valuable resources, we’ll make sure you’re prepared to cover what is sure to be a bustling fall.

Self-Directed Course
In 2008, AAPOR and Poynter’s News University put together a self-directed course called Understanding and Interpreting Polls for a private audience. Together, they updated it multiple times (most recently in 2016), made it public and created an international version. To date, the curriculum has reached more than 10,000 users around the world. This course is designed to be completed in three to four hours and covers how and why polls work, how to interpret data and how to report that information to your readers in a way they understand it. If you want a more in-depth look at how to use polls in your work, this course is it.

*A margin of error is a sampling error that shows the range of approximation in a result; you should not use push poll data; a random sample is choosing respondents at random to try and represent the population as a whole; and yes, it matters.

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