Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Our survey said...

Every day we are bombarded with the results of surveys. Many of these are now a rather odd breed of survey, where an organization will sponsor a survey company to produce results for a story they want to push. It's a form of editorial advertising.

The survey companies make no bones about this. If you look, for instance, at the website of OnePoll, they proclaim that they are 'survey-led news specialists.' The cutting from the Daily Mail above is a good example of their output. A survey for the National Trust was used to support the idea that children should spend more time out with their families. At National Trust sites, say. A worthy enough cause, but it is still very much manufactured news (The OnePoll sites has cuttings from the Mail, the Star and the Telegraph picking up on this story.)

But, leaving aside the doubtfulness of generating 'news' this way, do the surveys really tell us anything? How careful are they about demographic? These are online surveys, where the participants are paid to take part. How many truly make an effort to consider the questions? I suspect surveys with one or two questions will mostly get sensible answers, but surveys with 20 questions could easily result in random selection. And, of course, those who are likely to fill in surveys online tend to be an atypical slice of the population.

I've nothing against the survey companies. They're making a living. But I'm slightly more concerned that an organization like the National Trust should be taking this approach - and particularly worried that our newspapers are prepared to take this sort of thing as gospel. (No prizes for guessing which papers tend to rely most on iffy surveys.) One more reason, I suspect, for regarding newspapers purely as a form of entertainment, not as a way of gathering information.

1 comment:

  1. Good point.

    To be honest, I've noticed that the older I get, the less I believe - and also the less sure I am that there are any certainties or it's possible to truly know anything much at all. I live in a kind of permanent intellectual soup.

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