15.15 Cautions for Careful Communicators

Media professionals should be aware of the pitfalls that come with using information generated by a survey. There are a number of legitimate critiques of the way media organizations use (or mis-use) survey data. They include:

  • particularly around political elections, news organizations use opinion surveys to track only the horse-race aspect of the race, crowding out more analytical and in-depth reporting about the substance of candidates’ positions on the issues.

  • news reports about survey results may actually affect public opinion or behavior; there are a number of documented instances where the use of a particular technique called an “exit poll” (asking people who they voted for as they leave the polling place) has resulted in a news organization declaring a victor in a national election before the polls have closed across the country, resulting in people waiting in line at the polling place leaving before casting their vote.

  • marketing firms may interpret the results of a survey about consumer preferences in a way that suppresses innovation; how many people would have answered “yes” to the question about whether they wanted a camera in their mobile phone before such a thing became common place?

  • advertisers use survey data in the actual content of the ads in a way that may be misleading or confusing; for example, an ad may say that “2 out of 3 dentists recommend” a type of baking-soda toothpaste for healthier teeth and gums; the advertiser may have the survey results to substantiate that claim, but what the ad doesn’t say is that the dentists also recommended flouride toothpaste, dental floss, and mouthwashes; and furthermore, the pollsters only interviewed 100 dentists.

In sum, the information generated by surveys conducted by the contributors to an information strategy can be enormously helpful to communicators. It is your responsibility to understand the appropriate uses, and limits, of these types of sources.