IPSO Blog: The politics of polling

This week, the Lords Select Committee on Political Polling and Digital Media published their report, The Politics of Polling.

The report calls for a tighter oversight of opinion polling in the wake of polling failures in the 2015 general election, the EU referendum in 2016 and the 2017 general election. It also considers the impact of digital media on politics, and what can be done to combat the spread of misinformation online.

From the first Gallup polls in the 1930s, polling has long been an established part of British political life. But there has always been a certain degree of public scepticism around political polls, their value, and the way that their findings are used.

There are a number of challenges that polling companies face when trying to accurately poll in the UK. A volatile electorate, changing demographics, and increasing public refusal to participate in surveys are just some factors which contribute to potential distortion of findings.

The challenge involved in reporting polling data was another topic covered by the report. While polls often dominate news coverage in the run up to an election, the Committee found that “this coverage is not always an accurate reflection of polling data.”

What is IPSO doing about this issue?

IPSO consistently monitors standards across newspapers and magazines and we also take complaints about any potential breaches of the Editors' Code of Practice, which all newspapers and magazines regulated by IPSO must follow. Clause 1 (Accuracy) states that “the press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.”

Often newspapers have their own editorial stances on political issues, and although the Code allows them to editorialise and campaign, they must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

The Committee highlighted this in a case study taken from an article published by the Daily Express published in the run up to the Brexit referendum.

The newspaper published an article headlined “98% say no to EU deal” in its print edition, which went on to say that “98% of people who took part in a phone survey said that the decision to leave the EU should be enacted now, rather than after talks with Brussels.”

IPSO received a complaint under Clause 1 (Accuracy) which said that the headline was misleading because it did not make clear that the 98% figure had come from a phone survey of Daily Express readers, rather than representing the view of the public at large.

The complainant also said that the sample in the survey should have been screened or tested in advance, and that a responsible poll would have ensured a representative sample of survey recipients. IPSO’s Complaints Committee upheld the complaint, and The Daily Express was forced to publish an adjudication which set the record straight.

Can improvements be made to the reporting of polls?

The Committee report made a number of recommendations for potential improvements including co-ordinating a programme of training opportunities for journalists on how to read, interpret and report on polling data; proactively reviewing selected samples of media coverage of polls on an annual basis in order to monitor standards of media reporting; and enacting a policy whereby the British Polling Council and the Market Research Society proactively alert regulators to instances of “bad reporting” (rather than relying on members of the public to do so).  The report also suggested that IPSO and other regulators such as Ofcom could support the British Polling Council to develop training around the reporting of polls.

The Politics of Polling raises a number of important issues, and we look forward to further discussions on how we can contribute to better reporting and higher standards of journalism.

--If you’re interested in finding out more about the media and use of statistics including polls, this year’s IPSO lecture, given by Sir David Spiegelhalter, President of the Royal Statistical Society will be live streamed on our Facebook page on 24 April--