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article imageHealth Care Polls: Experts Explain Inconsistencies

By Carol Forsloff     Sep 1, 2009 in Politics
Rasmussen polls are said by some to be used by conservatives reporting news or opinions about an issue, including the popularity of the President. Because many Americans take them at face value, it’s important to understand polling, statistics and bias
In virtually every poll conducted since 2003, Americans have voiced interest in having a public health care option in legislation to reform health care. Recently the Rasmussen poll claims otherwise. This compares with results given by a wide variety of polling organizations over a number of years. What do experts and the pundits say about why one polling organization is different than another in reporting information?
Some say it’s impossible to trust Rasmussen poll results because of the bias of the founder, Scott Rasmussen, a staunch conservative Republican, the methodology used and the framing of questions used to elicit a given response. Eric Boehlert maintains it’s impossible to take Rasmussen results seriously because their polls are oriented around Republican talking points.
Most importantly, journalism experts point out the importance of presenting the hard data surrounding poll results. These experts observe readers need to know not just the raw results but also the type of questions asked, the number of respondents in any survey, the standard error and the confidence level. Reporters are encouraged to give this information when presenting poll results, according to Kathryn Woodruff-Wickam, Assistant Professor of Journalism at the University of Mississippi. She maintains it is important to examine margin of error and confidence level when looking at results in order to help people understand poll results and whether or not they are reliable. She declares bias as well as statistical details should be examined because it is critical that newspaper readers and television viewers recognize how information can be influenced by bias and how results can be statistically skewed or not presented in a fully meaningful fashion.
A scientific explanation reported in 1986 of polls and results observes how advocacy polling is one of those things that has developed over the past 20+ years. This type of poll is used by certain interest groups to create popular support for certain positions. The poll will use leading questions or selective reporting of results, often neglecting to report the measurement errors or level of confidence in results. The authors underline the fact that those folks who are long-term practitioners in doing statistical surveys and interpreting results know that if full quality and standardized procedures are used, “employing the same items lodged in the same context and measured at the same time will usually produce very similar results, if not within margins of pure sampling error, at least within margins that are less than half again greater.
Experts state the value of reporting information by pollsters and reporters that includes relevant information on how data was collected, what the standard error is, how questions are worded and what the level of confidence is with respect to results. They say that is important so the public can determine how Rasmussen poll results and others can be evaluated on the issue of health care reform or anything else.
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