Friday, August 20, 2010

Are Poll Details a Good Thing in a Story?

More information is better, or so goes the standard rule of thumb, especially when reporting the results of a public opinion poll.  AAPOR (full disclosure, I'm a member) and other organizations often suggest technical poll details a journalist should include in a story, such as margin of error, number of people polled, etc. 

And then comes along my latest copy of Newspaper Research Journal with two studies about polls.  Here are the titles of each:
  • Regular Readers Expect More Polling Details
  • Too Many Technical Details Hinder Recall of Poll Results
So with the first study, we learn from an experiment that regular readers expect details in a poll story and miss them when they're included.  But in the second study, also an experiment, we learn that lots details hinder how much people recall of a poll story.

How do we explain the differing results?

The first study examines perceptions, plus the results really work only for regular readers of a newspaper, not everyone in the experimental study.  The second study looks at recognition.  The more details, lower the knowledge.  Fascinating.

Both studies look at a species very much like human beings -- college students.  So the generalizability of the results can certainly be questioned, but I suspect the latter finding on learning has more to do with information overload, especially for this group, then anything else.  The journalism guy in me, despite these results, still favors putting as much technical information as is reasonable in a story about a poll -- particularly if the poll is about something important. 

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