Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Fudging questions

More on surveys: As part of a story you're covering on some environmental issue, say logging, you're asked to guage local public opinion. To do that, you need to prepare a survey of a select population. (Let's assume you have access to the names and addresses or e-mails of a random sample of that population, obtained from a list broker.) So you set out to formulate the questions.

Be careful: the questions have to be as neutral as possible, a very difficult task, especially in light of the politically charged atmosphere surrounding all environmental issues. Indeed, many fund raising organizations, on all sides of an issue, often send out "questionnaires" that ask highly loaded questions. They appear to be neutral, but are anything but.

For example, a pro-logging group might include in such a survey a question that asks: "Did you know that trees are a self-renewing energy resource?" What they do not explain is that it takes years and years for a woodland to renew the trees that have been logged, especially in cases of clear-cutting. And that, in the interim, logging can cause flooding and other ecological disasters. Or they might ask, "Do you think trees, which are self-regenerating, should take precedence over the right of people to work their way out of poverty?" Which assumes--tugging at the heart-strings--that logging is the only way for the population in question to make a living.

On the other side, an anti-logging group might ask, "Which of the following is more important: preserving our environment, or allowing giant lumber companies to reap huge profits while destroying our woodlands?" The bias here is obvious: all logging is bad. What they don't say is that some logging, done carefully, has been found to be ecologically beneficial, by allowing for new tree growth. And some lands, placed off-limits to logging, suddenly become susceptible to even more environmentally destructive developments, such as strip malls.

Regardless of your own position on an issue, as a journalist you need to formulate your questions to reflect as much disinterest as possible. Only then will you be able to tabulate answers that are statistically meaningful, and thereby generate a story that is honest. You might ask, for example:

"Loggers argue that trees are a renewable resource. Environmentalists argue that logging is overly destructive of the eco-system. Which of the two positions most accurately reflects your views?"

Then give options:
A) The loggers' position
B) The environmentalists' position
C) Both have equally valid points
D) Not sure

You're on the way to generating public opinion statistics that are not only valid, but that give you an exclusive.

No comments: