Ask the Editor: Partisan polls don’t tell the whole story

The Tribune won’t publish numbers that are designed to make one candidate look good

May 16, 2010 

Now that the election season is well under way, at least one local candidate is sending us regular updates from his campaign polls. Will we publish them?

Not if they’re partisan polls — which these are.

It has typically been our policy to avoid such polls for the very reason cited by the National Council on Public Polls: Data, while accurate, can be misleading if you don’t know the full story. Only the results that make a candidate look good could be released, for example.

If journalists do publish partisan polls, the group recommends that they disclose that information.

That’s what we did last fall when we published a state candidate’s polling results that showed he would win the June primary if the vote were taken then, in October. We clearly noted which firm conducted the in-house online survey; the total number and types of voters who received it; the number who replied; and the fact that the e-mail survey was not conducted in a scientific manner. By doing so, we believed that careful readers would take the results with a grain of salt.

In retrospect, however, we should have avoided publishing the results altogether.

As the national polling group (whose mission is to set professional standards for public opinion pollsters) notes, “Pollsters who work for candidates and parties are usually committed to helping their clients win.” Data released from these polls, it continued, is based on the assumption that it “will help the candidate, not that it will inform the media or enlighten the public.’’

A scientific poll is decidedly different. If conducted correctly, it’s a snapshot in time — a reliable guide to what people think on a specific issue at a specific point in time.

Even in these cases, however, it’s incumbent on us to disclose how the poll was conducted, who paid for it, how the questions were asked and its margin of error, among other things. And we’ll be sure to provide as much context on the issue as possible.

If you want to learn more about polling, check out the National Council on Public Polls’ website, www.ncpp.org.

Q: How long does it take to handle a Letter to the Editor and/or what are the chances it will be printed?

— Jim Cornett

A: Letters that address current topics in the news such as health care reform, candidate endorsements and school cutbacks are typically published before those that deal with less time-sensitive issues or lighter topics. We receive more than 400 letters a month. We’ll get more as the election season intensifies. That’s far more than the 250 we have room to publish each month, approximately, according to Letters Editor Nicole Smith. As a result, our backlog can run up to two weeks. Letters that are sent via e-mail usually are printed sooner than those received by fax or regular mail because they don’t have to be scanned or typed into our computer system. One last note: Although we set a 200-word limit for letters, we give preference to those that are pithy — with even fewer words.

Q: Having worked with kids for more than 40 years, I always like to see events such as the Mother/Son dance (at the Grover Beach Community Center) that was in The Tribune (last Monday). Photographer Joe Johnston deserves praise for capturing the “I am having fun” expressions of the kids. May I have some more, please?

— Rick Tibben, Nipomo

A: Thanks so much for taking the time to write! We, too, believe that it’s important to share heartwarming moments like these in photos or words or both. So yes, we’ll keep publishing them. Do you have a question about the newspaper, our Web site or our coverage? If so, please write me c/o The Tribune, P.O. Box 112, San Luis Obispo, CA, 93406-0112, or e-mail me at sduerr@thetribunenews.com.

Sandra Duerr is the executive editor of The Tribune.

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