Polls make a poor substitute for news

Lately, newspaper headlines have been filled with news of the latest New Hampshire polls, telling readers how the presidential candidates stand in relation to each other. Polls on President Clinton’s popularity and citizens’ views on controversial legislation constantly replace actual news on the radio, television and in newspapers. Media sources should begin to question whether polls represent the best use of limited space.
For almost a century, statisticians have attempted to predict the results of elections before the actual elections occur. Their success has varied, but the impact of pollsters has become mainly negative. Rather than providing useful information, polls have simply become presentations of empty facts of little use to the general public.
For instance, polls that purport to determine the popularity of elected officials frequently have a hard time phrasing questions in an unbiased way. Asking whether President Clinton is doing a good job might elicit a different response than asking if he is doing a spectacular job. Furthermore, polls have a very difficult time measuring how strongly a belief is held. Two people both answering yes to a question about election reforms might truly be very different, one believing so strongly he is compelled to march in protests, the other simply thinking the change couldn’t be worse than the present system.
More dangerously, polls have increasingly replaced actual reporting on important issues. Every time a newspaper or television show runs a story on a recent poll, that is time not being dedicated to actual reporting of the issues behind the poll. The audience might know Bill Bradley has a small lead over Al Gore in New Hampshire, but they do not know if Bradley is in favor of affirmative action, or if Al Gore supports a middle-class tax cut. Instead, they have merely been informed that the 100 people in New Hampshire who happened to be home at 4:30 p.m. on Friday happened to answer the question in a certain way. Even if the poll ends up being 100 percent correct in its prediction, it is not information that benefits the general population in any real way.
There is also evidence that widespread distribution of poll results can actually have an effect on how people view an issue. If an individual who starts out the day feeling vaguely supportive of a new transit program is barraged by information telling her more than 75 percent of the state’s population is strongly opposed, she will likely become unsure of the validity of her opinion, despite the lack of any real information disproving her beliefs.
A final problem with polls is that they almost always require a yes or no answer. Polls do not allow for shades of gray, nor do they act as a means of discussion. Polls present data in an artificially factual manner, portraying the information as infallible, when in actuality the data might well be of dubious use. Without any context, readers begin to see the issue as black and white.
Polls are not entirely without value, but in general, the information polls provide is of little actual use. Those in the business of providing news to the public should seriously question the merit of continually presenting statistics without any background or context for the data. The public should demand actual news from media sources, rather than simply accepting the endless stream of polls as a replacement for genuine information.