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Presented by Incubation Lab: Does CNN.com’s ‘Poll’ Underestimate Public Media Funding Support?

The Presented by Incubation Lab series shines the spotlight on CNN.com's recent 'Quick Vote' asking people to respond with their opinions about funding public media. Michael Keefe-Feldman, Online Managing Editor for WMHT, weighs in:

On the homepage of CNN.com earlier this week, a ‘Quick Vote’ poll question asked, ‘Should federal funding be stripped from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to save more than $400 million a year?’ As of the time I write this, approximately 345,000 votes have been recorded by CNN.com and 56% of those are ‘No’ votes, while 44% are ‘Yes’ votes.

This is a bad poll. Even if we could look past the unscientific nature of the poll (though we shouldn’t), the question itself is designed in a way that will produce skewed results—likely to the disservice of public media and its legions of supporters.

CNN.com’s poll question is dangerously close to what pollsters would call a ‘push poll.’ At best, it is leading. This is because the question includes the rationale as to why one might vote ‘Yes’ (to save taxpayer money) but doesn’t include the rationale as to why one might vote ‘No’ (some hint of the societal value of educational, non-commercial media). If you’re trying to be as objective as possible, you should either include both rationales or neither one.

‘Should federal funding be stripped from CPB?’ would be a fair question. Though it’s a bit of a mouthful, another fair question might read something like this: ‘Should federal funding be stripped from CPB—the agency which funds non-commercial, educational PBS and NPR programs such as ‘Sesame Street’ and ‘All Things Considered’—in order to save taxpayers $400 million a year?’ Instead, CNN.com included one motivational factor but not the other, which is just poor methodology. I suspect that these results will be tacked on to a story on CNN and thereby given the weight of some sort of journalistic truth or meaning. Blech!

To make matters worse, the poll question itself and the corresponding results box do not mention the fact that this is not a scientific poll—as is the case with most online polls, which typically reflect the views of a self-selecting group of highly-engaged or motivated respondents rather than a random sample of the general population. Though you probably already know this about online polls, not everyone does—so what often gives this kind of a poll its journalistic heft is the masking of its actual irrelevance. When that happens, people are apt to develop a distorted sense of public opinion.

So far, CNN.com’s poll indicates that a majority of Americans favor continued funding for CPB. But given the numbers we’ve seen in the past, you have to wonder if it might in fact be a super majority with a fairly-worded question.


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2 comments:

  1. That poll isn't really valid, considering that you could just reload the page and vote again, as many times as you wanted. Not just "unscientific," but completely invalid.

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  2. Great post, Michael! For yet more information on scientific and unscientific polls -- and how to tell one from another -- check out this guidance from the National Council on Public Polls: http://www.ncpp.org/?q=node/4

    Joel Schwartzberg
    Senior Editor, PBS Interactive

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