By: Randy Dotinga
Are They Harmless Fun Or Dangerous?
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by Randy Dotinga
Does George W. Bush have what it takes to be president? Is frisky actor
Hugh Grant a boring lover? Would you buy a copy of Playboy with a nude
spread of ‘Survivor’ castaway Jenna Lewis?
The Arizona Republic wants to know. This month, surveys asked these
questions on the newspaper’s Web site, azcentral.com.
It’s the latest trend. Dozens of newspaper Web sites now offer online
polls on subjects ranging from the silly to the serious.
Polling experts would prefer to vote these unscientific surveys not
just off the island but off the planet. ‘The market research industry
hates them,’ says Amy Davidoff, president of Market Voice, a marketing
consulting firm in Indianapolis. ‘People start to think that surveys
are games that can be manipulated, or that they’re entertainment.’
Some papers, such as The Arizona Republic, may have nearly a dozen
polls running at once. Many of the surveys are anything but frivolous.
The Indianapolis Star recently asked readers how they would unclog
gridlock in the city’s northeastern sector.
At the Republic, online editors and producers create the questions
based on what’s happening in the news, says Senior Producer John Ames.
‘We try to stay away from obvious questions that won’t generate a lot
of response, like ‘Are drugs a bad thing to have in schools?’ And you
have to ask simple questions. The simpler the question, the better.’
One of the Republic’s recent surveys asked readers if they preferred
a summer monsoon storm or a brutally hot day. The monsoon won, 80% to
20%. Nearly 1,000 people voted, about 10 times as many responded to a
question about whether Madonna’s new video, ‘Music,’ was too racy.
Unlike some papers, the Republic includes both the results of the poll
and the number of people who took it. ‘We consider it a good poll if
we get 1,500 people in 24 hours,’ Ames says.
Some newspapers, such as The Dallas Morning News, include disclaimers
admitting that their polls are unscientific. The Morning News says its
results ‘do not represent the opinions of the entire public, only those
who wished to participate.’ The newspaper wants to make it clear that
the surveys are just for fun, says Gerry Barker, its site manager.
But that may not be enough, says Howard Fienberg, a research analyst
with the Statistical Assessment Service, a nonprofit think tank.
Unscientific online polls are ‘garbage,’ he says, and should not be
used as the basis for any conclusion. ‘They’re giving people false
impressions of how public research is done and a false impression of
public opinion overall,’ says Fienberg, who has written on polls for
many leading newspapers.
For one thing, the people who take part in online polls are not chosen
randomly, he says. Individuals or groups can easily manipulate online
polls. While many of the polls try to prevent users from voting more
than once, it’s simple for any expert computer user to override the
Fienberg pointed to a November poll in the New York Post as an example
of ridiculous results. The survey asked online readers to name the 25
most evil people of the millennium. In second place, right behind Adolf
Hitler, was President Bill Clinton. His wife, Hillary, finished in
sixth place, beating out the Marquis de Sade and Jack the Ripper. Even
some celebrated Clinton-bashers might think this went a bit too far.
But some newspaper officials say it’s clear that their polls are only
provided as entertainment. ‘We’re just having fun with the readers,’
says Ken Riddick, director of interactive media at The Fresno (Calif.)
Bee. ‘We’re not trying to be scientific about anything.’
The Bee’s polls allow readers to rate new films. ‘It’s not going to
change anybody’s life, but it does give somebody a chance to disagree
with our critic,’ Riddick says.
Randy Dotinga is a free-lance writer based in San Diego.
(c) Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher