Leveson: Press, polls and public opinion

Published: November 29, 2012

“What does the public really think about press regulation? It depends on how they're asked...”

Today’s Leveson inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press is likely to divide political opinion. But what about the wider public? Surely the widespread anger and disgust demonstrated after the phone-hacking revelations will see a united call for greater independent regulation of the press?

Perhaps, perhaps not; it all depends on how the argument is framed. In a recent Daily Mail article headlined “Doubts over manipulated poll”, Michael Seamark reported on questions over the accuracy and validity of recent surveys to find out people’s views on regulation of the press. Two surveys, both conducted by polling firm YouGov, turned up contradictory results just weeks apart. What’s going on?

As the article makes clear, the difference in results can be explained by the difference in the wording of the questions. In one poll, for the Media Standards Trust, people were asked if they thought there should be “an independent body established by law”, or if “newspapers should establish their own body”. The use of the word “independent” in the first option but not the second clearly swayed people towards the first choice, with independence seen as limiting bias or conflict of interests.

In the second poll, for The Sun, people were asked if they would like to see a regulatory body set up “through law by Parliament, with rules agreed by MPs” or “through legally binding contracts by the media industry, with rules agreed by newspaper owners”. In this case, the emphasis that rules would be agreed by politicians in the first option is likely to have swayed people towards self-regulation.

Surveys and opinion polls are a valuable way of discovering, demonstrating and quantifying opinion. They help politicians understand the views of their constituents, brands develop useful products and services, and employers react to the needs of their employees. They are also a crucial part of public relations and media communications activity.

However, surveys and polls are only as accurate as their methodology, and are often developed without being thought through carefully enough by somebody with an understanding of research. That’s why it’s pleasing to see the press questioning survey findings and looking closely at what exactly was asked to get the results.

As communications professionals, we frequently develop and commission surveys on behalf of our clients. But we must constantly check and challenge ourselves to ensure that we are not unduly influencing people due to what we ask, how we ask it, or where we ask it. For example, online surveys are a simple and cost-effective survey method, but they will often be weighted towards a certain demographic – those who have access to and regularly use the internet – so alternative research techniques such as focus groups must also be considered.

Research methodology may seem a dry topic to some, but it has a huge influence over how we understand people’s opinions, and, in turn, how we are governed. There is already much debate over how the question on Scottish independence will be framed. Whatever Leveson proposes, it’s likely that opinion polls will be hastily conducted on the public’s response. But before we draw any conclusions from these, it’s worth asking the question – ‘How was the survey constructed and administered, and how might this have influenced the response?’

Jo Nussbaum

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