From a media perspective, meanwhile, the existence of these polls makes it harder to communicate good information. That’s partly because any storyline can be hard to dispel once it’s accepted, but there’s something more going on. In this case, we really are in a period in which conservative elites—both elected officials and members of the media—have been using inflammatory rhetoric. It’s reasonable to conclude that this rhetoric has contributed to the incidents of harassment and vandalism we’ve seen in the wake of the health-care vote. For a number of reasons, it would be journalistically valuable to try to deduce the broader state of opinion among conservative voters, and both polling and old-fashioned reporting can play a role in that process.
But in order both to be credible and to be perceived as credible, that undertaking has to come from a place of open inquiry, not from an expectation that the results will boost book sales, create a news cycle, or confirm a political narrative. The whole appeal of polling is its promise (sometimes oversold) to produce objective, almost scientific data that tells us something about the state of our politics. When that enterprise itself becomes an exercise in political gamesmanship, it may foster cynicism about the utility and quality of any effort to collect information. If any given piece of news is valuable only insofar as it advances a particular political view, then they are all in a sense equivalent, which is to say worthless.
That’s not to say that political perspectives don’t have a place in journalism (they do) or that our political views won’t shape the way we understand information (they will). But we still need to protect a place for facts and evidence in our political debate, and to do that we need to push back against rhetorical opportunism and statistical sloppiness on all sides. Journalists can do this by not cutting corners when reporting and compiling data—but also by making the case for why methodological rigor is valuable, and by providing readers with the tools to evaluate information themselves.
This, in the end, is the real value in Langer’s post—it explains why the Harris poll is flawed in a way that will hopefully prompt closer scrutiny of storyline it perpetuated. While this type of direct engagement between media outlets is somewhat unusual, Langer has a clear incentive here: as a pollster, he needs to uphold the integrity, credibility, and rigor of his profession. It’s a lesson for other members of the press to keep in mind.
Update: For another close look at the Harris poll featuring thoughts on how to design a more valid survey, see Mark Blumenthal’s “Mystery Pollster” column for National Journal.
Update 2, 3/30: James Taranto’s Wall Street Journal piece last Thursday also raises good questions about the sampling and survey design.