Nieman Foundation at Harvard
How South Africa’s largest digital news outlet plans to cover the chaotic 2024 election
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May 21, 2019, 9:44 a.m.

People lie about going to church and aren’t sure what “rural” means: Highlights from the latest in public opinion research

Plus: Best practices for election forecasts, why people don’t vote, and the connection between media consumption and media trust.

This past weekend, the smart folks who try to figure out what the hell we’re thinking at any given moment gathered in Toronto for the annual conference of the American Association for Public Opinion Research. The jobs of pollsters and journalists don’t have a perfect overlap — mostly, we like anecdotal ledes more — but we’re all in the business of understanding the opinions of citizens and seeing if the information they receive meets their needs as civic actors.

I was watching via Twitter, and you can do the same via hashtag. Here are a few of the items that piqued my interest — some relating to media consumption, some relating to how we should report about polls, some relating to broader information trends. Many of the underlying ideas aren’t new, but they’re an excellent reminder to be aware of how our eyes, ears, and notebooks can sometimes deceive us.

People lie about going to church. You can tell if you have a tracking device on their phone! This sort of social desirability bias is something reporters come across all the time — otherwise, we’d be an exceedingly buff nation from all those six weekly visits to the gym.

People can be more or less willing to express their opinions — to a pollster or to a reporter — depending on what’s happening in the news. (That old bugaboo differential response bias.) Right after the Brett Kavanaugh hearings last fall, for example, Trump supporters were notably more willing to respond to a survey — which made them look like a larger share of the electorate than they were unless you corrected for it.

Even the most fundamental of terms don’t mean the same thing to everyone! One man’s “large central metro” is another man’s…farm?

Best practices for running an election forecast — that is, if anyone other than Nate Silver isn’t scared off by the spectre of 2016:

This is why the people who didn’t vote in 2018 stayed home. The media plays a pretty big role in at least the first three.

“Combining race, education, and gender, the largest subset of the electorate is white college-educated women.” Also, black women are a larger part of the Democratic electorate than college-educated white men or “very liberal” men. Something to remember when you’re trying to get the voice of the Democratic voter.

Whether or not you trust the media aligns a lot with what kind of media you like to consume. Watch PBS and read The New York Times? You’re probably a Democrat and high-trust in media. Local TV and local (non-public) radio? Republican and low-trust. (Separately, note how Democrats outconsume Republicans in 7 of the 9 media formats listed — even cable news! Liberals just consume a lot more news on average than conservatives.)

Attention sensor journalists: People are a lot more willing to let you see their GPS data than their photos and videos.

We’ve long known that people are more willing to split tickets in local elections than in federal ones. (Meaning they’re more willing to vote for a mayor or governor of the other party than they are a president or a member of Congress.) For local reporters that should mean more coverage of issues that cut across party lines.

Twitter users are 3 to 4 percent more likely to donate to a political campaign that Twitter abstainers.

And finally, if you like cats, you probably like responding to polls.

Illustration based on image by Srdja Dragovic used under a Creative Commons license.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     May 21, 2019, 9:44 a.m.
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