Poll conversation

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By Sarah Barchus

In a recent article in the Star Tribune, politics reporter Baird Helgeson (651-925-5044) used information from polls to discuss the defeat of the proposed marriage amendment.

Helgeson said that when writing about controversial issues, like the marriage amendment, that attribution is key to avoid sounding biased. He said that he tries to write compelling stories and uses polls as the "bedrock" to back up statements that some people may see as "loaded."

Helgeson said that the Star Tribune uses polling companies to do its polling, and thus sets the standards for the information used in its stories. He said they usually shoot for a 3.5 percent margin of error.

Even with high standards for accuracy, Helgeson said the Star Tribune is sometimes criticized because they don't correct their sampling. He said they usually poll 1,000 people and ask them their political party. If they happen to have surveyed more people from one party than another, Helgeson said they don't try to find more people from the other party to balance the numbers. Helgeson said, "How people identify themselves is interesting."

Helgeson said the Star Tribune doesn't use a lot of outside polls, but when it does, reporters need to check who did the poll, see if the polled people were contacted via cellphone numbers (which generates a more representative sample), note the sample size, look for a low margin of error and read the questions carefully.

Helgeson said reporters have to be careful when using polls. He said politicians often criticize the press for hurting their campaign by reporting polls that show them in a bad light. Helgeson said reporters need to consider how their reporting may affect voters's opinions.

When polls are used effectively, Helgeson said they can bolster a case and display the issue; they can show what people care about and convey energy and motivation.

However, Helgeson said polling is a "tricky science." A poll is "just a snapshot in time," he said, and one needs to consider what other factors go into the numbers.

"A poll is just a poll," he said. "Even the best polls can be wrong."

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This page contains a single entry by barch009 published on November 8, 2012 4:23 PM.

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