In 1998, the Council of American Survey Research Organizations, wished to conduct research which would examine the public’s awareness of and attitudes toward the various types of polls conducted among consumers. In particular, there was a desire to determine whether the public actually discriminates among different types of polls.

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Key Findings

1. Consumers appear to be aware of and to differentiate among the various types of polls and surveys conducted among the public.

• They are most likely to have heard of political polls: 94% phone; 98% online.

• However, high levels of respondents, especially those interviewed online, have also heard of polls conducted and reported by the media, of market research surveys, and of public opinion surveys other than political polls (at least 3 in 4 phone; at least 9 in 10 online).

• Fewer (especially among those interviewed by phone) express awareness of polls reported by the media but were conducted by someone else (57% phone; 80% online).

2. Consumer product and public opinion polls and pollsters are viewed in a generally positive manner when compared to other types of professions. However, media polls are viewed in a less positive way, and political polls (the most recognizable type of polling) are least likely to be seen in a favorable manner.

• At least 6 in 10 of all respondents feel that market research about products/services and public opinion pollsters have a positive impact on society.

• A majority (57% phone; 54% online) also feel that media researchers have a positive impact.

• However, less than half (41% phone; 37% online) consider political pollsters to have a positive impact, ratings which put them below the professions of Congressmen and attorneys.

3. When directly asked what they think about the impact of work performed by people in various polling professions, respondents tend to feel that surveys about consumer products/services and social issues conducted by commercial research firms has a more positive impact on society than political or media polling. The types of work considered to have the most positive impact (highest “very/somewhat” positive impact ratings) are:

• People who work for commercial research firms who conduct surveys about consumer products and services (71% phone; 69% online)

• People who work for commercial research firms who conduct surveys about what the public thinks about important social issues (66% phone; 60% online).

4. Respondents are generally positive about media reporting of poll results, with the majority saying they like it and pay attention to the results (although not as much attention to the sponsor of the survey). However, consumers do not pay as much attention to media reports of survey results as they do about other news topics reported in the media that has more direct impact on their lives (e.g., the weather, local news, national news).

5. Respondents (more so among those interviewed online) also tend to indicate that poll results reported by the media are an accurate reflection of public opinion. However, beliefs about accuracy are greater for polls about non-political issues than about political ones.

• 50% of phone and 58% of online respondents feel that surveys conducted by and reported in the media about public officials and political candidates reflect public opinion “very/somewhat” accurately.

• 64% of phone and 72% of online respondents think that surveys conducted and reported by the media about non-political topics reflect public opinion “very/somewhat” accurately.

• During the couple of months preceding this survey – when President Clinton’s impeachment was in the news -- respondents also say the media has been reporting the results of political polls “much/somewhat more” often than usual (74% phone; 79% online).

• Moreover, a sizable minority of respondents said their opinion of surveys conducted by the media about political issues during the couple of months preceding this interview had worsened (30% phone; 35% online).

6. Although respondents are most likely to be aware of political polls, they are also more likely to be skeptical of polls conducted by public officials or political candidates than they are about consumer, social or media surveys and polls.

• People who work for commercial research firms who conduct surveys about consumer products and services as well as important social issues are considered to have a positive impact on society by about 2 in 3 respondents.

• However, less than half of those surveyed on the phone and only about a third of those interviewed online feel that people who conduct surveys for a political party to see what the public thinks about a political issue, or people who conduct surveys for public officials or political candidates to see what the public thinks about them, have a positive impact on society.

• A sizable minority (29% phone; 33% online) say that their opinion of surveys conducted for public officials or political candidates over the months preceding this interview has worsened “somewhat/a great deal.”

7. However, when directly asked, most respondents, especially those interviewed online, agree that “on balance, both good and bad things equally result from the fact that public officials or political candidates take polls (51% phone; 65% online). The remaining respondents are equally divided between politicians taking polls being a good thing (23% phone; 17% online) or a bad thing (24% phone; 18% online).

8. When given a list of 16 potential survey subjects, the majority of respondents think they are suitable topics for interviews, with three exceptions:

• The sex lives of public officials or political candidates is considered a “very/somewhat” appropriate topic by only 25% of those interviewed by phone, and only 21% of those interviewed online (thus, about 3 in 4 think it is an unsuitable topic).

• Abortion was considered a suitable topic by only 66% of those interviewed by phone and 63% of those online (or, in other words, about 1 in 3 say it is an unsuitable topic).

• Experiences with specific diseases was considered appropriate by only about 7 in 10 respondents (72% phone; 71% online). Here, there is often a concern that the privacy of sick individuals is being invaded. In actuality, consent is always obtained before interviewing a respondent with a specific disease, and these respondents indicate that they hope their interview will be able to assist others who may have the same condition.

In comparison, at least 9 in 10 think healthcare, the economy, consumer products and airline safety are suitable topics, and about 8 in 10 think unemployment, civil rights, restaurants, physicians, bank services/products, movies, the death penalty, social trends, and automobile styles are appropriate topics.

Read the full 1999 CASRO Poll about Polls report.