7th February 2024
Impress Insights: Accurately Reporting On Opinion Polls Will Help To Protect Democracy in 2024

Derbah Harding: Accurately Reporting On Opinion Polls Will Help To Protect Democracy in 2024

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2024 is being dubbed a ‘super election year’. More than half of the world’s population is set to go to the polls with regional, legislative and presidential votes taking place in over 60 countries.

But it’s not just the sheer number of elections that make this a year like no other. It’s also the first time that major democracies such as the UK, US and India have been to the polls since generative AI truly burst onto the scene in 2022. These powerful tools pose a major challenge for democracy across the globe. They will inevitably intensify the issue of deepfakes and misinformation – already rife across the west – and influence the outcome at the ballots.

The responsibility of the media in protecting our democracy therefore weighs more heavily than ever – an obligation to cut through the nonsense and provide accurate and reliable information for the public to make informed decisions.

Opinion polls will provide a serious test on this front. They are shared far and wide, and sometimes carried out by publications themselves. But reporting on them will require journalists to have a strong appreciation not only of the possibilities of what polling can illustrate, but more importantly an understanding of its limitations.

There are basics around methodology which any experienced journalist will be familiar with: being clear on samples and whether they’re representative, that research was fielded recently, and that the organisation which delivered the survey is accredited by a regulatory organisation such as the Market Research Society or the British Polling Council.

While these may seem like simple checks, they can be pushed aside in a commercially competitive media landscape and where the ‘marmalade dropper’ is often the goal.

It’s vital to interrogate the survey and data itself to avoid publishing misleading content. Biased questioning, for example, can manifest itself in a number of subtle ways, which means it’s important to check that leading questions have not been used to produce a certain answer.

Data also has its limitations: a change in two percent falls within the margin of error and does not constitute a “swing”; and removing “don’t know” answers and rebasing data based on those who gave a response does not accurately depict how the public feels.

All of this may sound pedantic, but news that fails to take these factors into account has the potential to massively skew public opinion. With democracy already facing an uphill battle when it comes to the transparency of information, it is critical that inaccurate reporting of polling doesn’t exacerbate it further. At times like these pedantry and process are our friends.

As democracy faces its toughest test yet in this election year for the ages, the media will play a defining role in whether it can come through unscathed.

By Debrah Harding
Managing Director, Market Research Society and Impress Board Member


About Debrah

Debrah has worked on behalf of the research sector for over 20 years. As Managing Director of the Market Research Society (MRS), Debrah leads on its standards, policy and public affairs activities, working extensively with government departments and global institutions. Debrah has a wealth of knowledge of ethical Codes, quality standards, guidelines and data protection/GDPR and their enforcement. Debrah is also Chair of the Global Business Research Network (GRBN), Vice-President of the European Research Federation (EFAMRO), a member of the BSI Standards Policy & Strategy Committee.

About Impress 

Impress is a champion for news that can be trusted. We are here to make sure news providers can publish with integrity; and the public can engage in an ever-changing media landscape with confidence. We set the highest regulatory standards for news, offer education to help people make informed choices and provide resolution when disputes arise. 

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