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The survey question: What will media cover?

Two-in-five American adults read a newspaper every day. An intriguing statistic, surely, but one you likely won’t find in a newspaper. Though it might be counterintuitive, this statistic was the result of an online survey, and as such, is subject to being easily dismissed by many of the nation’s top media outlets.


Why? Some of the most venerable papers, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post – the list goes on – have strict standards when it comes to covering polling research. Specifically, they “do not publish most Internet polls.” They make a fair case for exclusion, noting that populations surveyed must be based on a probability sample; that is to say, each person in the population should have an equal chance of being selected. Typically, online survey researchers draw from a pre-recruited panel to respond to surveys and then weight the sample to align it statistically with the population being polled.


Random digit dial (RDD), or telephone polling, is believed by many, at least the Times and Post staff, to be the only way to accurately recruit a survey sample that mirrors the U.S. population. That’s because anyone can be reached by landline telephone. Right?


Wrong. In fact, as much as 20 percent of the population is now considered cell-phone only, something becoming a bit of a thorn in the side of RDD proponents. The cellular population is so burgeoning that researchers are forced to supplement RDD with custom samples of cell phone-only households to boost the accuracy of their samples.


To make things even more interesting, a recent study conducted by the Advertising Research Foundation compared RDD and online methodologies to see how each stacked up against demographic data from the U.S. Census. RDD showed no evidence of being more accurate than online methodologies and even turned out to be less accurate when it came to reporting respondents’ ages and cell-phone usages. This isn’t to say online surveys are the most accurate, but they certainly aren’t as “cheap and dirty” as once made out to be.


Nearly 80 percent of U.S. households have a computer with Internet access. And it’s a number far more likely to increase than landline telephone usage, thanks in part to the Obama administration’s efforts to provide high-speed Internet access to all. As our nation moves closer to realizing universal Internet access, perhaps it’s finally time for media to rethink their standards.

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