Don’t just believe what you’re told about polls
From time to time a news story comes out citing a poll that isn’t in the public domain. These articles are written on the basis of a press release – apparently all the information the journalist has about the poll.
Given that journalists are supposed to be a cynical bunch, this always strikes me as surprising. By writing up the data from the press release without checking the poll themselves, they’re taking a leap of faith that they’ve been given a fair representation of the truth. Since these press releases (of course) show results that are helpful to the organisation that commissioned the poll, you would expect due diligence for a journalist to include checking the data.
A recent poll by EDF Energy, carried out by ICM, shows why this matters.
The research was conducted among 1002 adults living near the Hinkley Point Power Station, and asked about their attitudes to nuclear power and the possible construction of a new plant.
On the strength of the poll, EDF put out this press release, in which they said that “Nearly four times as many local people support plans for a new power station at Hinkley Point than oppose it”, and that “63% support the development of Hinkley Point C”. The press release was picked up quite widely by local media, including the BBC. Nice job by their PR people in winning positive local coverage.
Fortunately, ICM is a member of the British Polling Council (BPC) and abides by its rules. These rules are strongly weighted towards transparency, and include the stipulation that where research findings have entered the public domain – as in this poll – the full data and complete wording of the questionnaire must be made available.
As ever, ICM have done this, and we can look at the data here to test out EDF’s claim.
Firstly, there’s no dispute about the figures they’ve issued. As they say, 63% are “strongly in favour” or “slightly in favour” of the potential development of Hinkley Point C, and only 17% are slightly or strongly opposed.
However, being able to see the complete data also allows us to see the wording of the whole questionnaire. The sequence of questions runs:
1. How favourable or unfavourable is your opinion of the nuclear energy industry? Is that very or quite favourable/unfavourable?
[So immediately respondents know that this is an interview about the nuclear industry. But for me that’s ok – we’re not looking at the industry in comparison with others.]
2. To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statement?
Nuclear energy has disadvantages but the country needs nuclear power as part of the energy balance with coal, gas and wind power.
[This statement is structured in a way that makes it harder to disagree. It appear reasoned: taking on board the downsides of nuclear before drawing a measured conclusion that it’s a necessary evil to produce a greater good. The result? Only 13% disagree with it, and the whole audience are nudged towards thinking that nuclear power is necessary.]
3. As you may be aware the power plant at Hinkley Point B is due to close in 2016. One option for future energy generation would be to build new nuclear capacity at Hinkley Point C. Overall, do you think a new power station will have a positive or a negative impact on the local area?
4a. Why do you think it will have a positive impact on the local area?
Q5. Which is MOST important?
Q6b. You stated that you think a new power station will have a POSITIVE impact on the local area? However, do you think there will be any NEGATIVE things?
4b. Why do you think it will have a negative impact on the local area?
Q6a. You stated that you think a new power station will have a NEGATIVE impact on the local area? However, do you think there will be any POSITIVE things?
Q7. How important, if at all, do you consider a new power station at Hinkley to each of the following?
- To the creation of local jobs
- To the future of local businesses
Q8. Why do you say that?
[By this point, respondents have been forced to think about both the negative and the positive aspects of a new nuclear power station. However, they’ve had one more question about the positive reasons (Q5) than the negative reasons, and the section finishes with two questions about job creation and the future of local businesses. This is then immediately followed by the question that EDF used in their press release:]
Q9. Overall, thinking about the potential development of Hinkley Point C would you say that you would be? (strongly in favour / slightly in favour / neither in favour nor opposed / slightly opposed / strongly opposed)
If I were writing a poll and wanted an accurate read on people’s attitudes about an issue like the construction of a new power station at Hinkley Point, I would put the key question as early in the poll as possible. I would not put it after several questions that encourage people to think more deeply about the issue than they normally do. And I would certainly not put it after a series of questions that encourages people to think about aspects of the issue that will make them more likely to think about it in a particular way.
Fortunately, thanks to the rules of the BPC (and to EDF and ICM for abiding by these rules) we have been able to scrutinise the results for ourselves. I have my personal opinion on the value of the research, and everyone else can look at the poll and form their own opinions as well. It doesn’t take long to go through a poll, and doesn’t require much specialist knowledge. So in principle we can be reassured that any journalists who write about the story has taken the 15 minutes needed to go to ICM’s website and read through the poll themselves.
This is why it’s so unsatisfying for a poll to get news coverage when it’s based on unpublished data. If no-one can check that the numbers are actually correct and that the question wording isn’t set up to produce certain answers, who’s to say that we should believe what it says in the press release?
Take, for example, the claim made in an Easyjet press release last year that a YouGov poll showed that 80% of UK consumers wanted a rethink of Air Passenger Duty. This claim was mostly carried in various travel publications, but was also picked up by the Observer. Yet, as far as I can tell, the data were never put on either company’s website.
As a journalist, I would want to know more about a poll I was writing about than I can find from any press release I’ve come across. And as a reader, I would want to know that the journalist who wrote the story I’m reading has checked their facts – and that I can double-check them myself if I want.