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20 Questions A Journalist Should Ask About Poll Results - continued

17. What other polls have been done on this topic? Do they say the same thing? If they are different, why are they different?

Results of other polls—by a newspaper or television station, a public survey firm or even a candidate's opponent—should be used to check and contrast poll results you have in hand.

If the polls differ, first check the timing of the interviewing. If the polls were done at different times, the differing results may demonstrate a swing in public opinion.

If the polls were done about the same time, ask each poll sponsor for an explanation of the differences. Conflicting polls often make good stories.

18. What about exit polls?

Exit polls, properly conducted, are an excellent source of information about voters in a given election. They are the only opportunity to survey actual voters and only voters.

There are several issues that should be considered in reporting exit polls. First, exit polls report how voters believe they cast their ballots. The election of 2000 showed that voters may think they have voted for a candidate, but their votes may not have been recorded. Or in some cases, voters actually voted for a different candidate than they thought they did.

Second, absentee voters are not included in many exit polls. In states where a large number of voters vote either early or absentee, an absentee telephone poll may be combined with an exit poll to measure voter opinion. If in a specific case there are large numbers of absentee voters and no absentee poll, you should be careful to report that the exit poll is only of Election Day voters.

Third, make sure that the company conducting the exit poll has a track record. Too many exit polls are conducted in a minimal number of voting locations by people who do not have experience in this specialized method of polling. Those results can be misleading.

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