Financial Times, Lazard resist disclosure on poll facts
July 20, 2011 — According to a recent Financial Times report on the extent of public support for green energy development based on a poll sponsored by Lazard, a major international financial advisory and asset management firm, U.S. voters cap their willingness to pay for renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, at $10 per month. “The results,” wrote the Financial Times, “suggest that higher-cost forms of alternative energy…are likely to come under growing political pressure.” But can the poll results be trusted? Remapping Debate sought to find out, but neither the Financial Times nor Lazard would provide the basic information required to make this determination, a position seemingly at odds with the standards of professional practice of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) and similar organizations.
Transparency is key
“Disclosure is critical to establishing a measure of trust,” said Scott Keeter, president of AAPOR and the director of Survey Research at the Pew Research Center, in an interview with Remapping Debate. “More information about how the poll was conducted is going to be beneficial to you. It’s going to provide people with confidence that you aren’t hiding something from them, that you didn’t ask questions in the poll that you’re now suppressing, that you didn’t word the questions in a way that would tend to bias respondents toward one side of an issue or another, that you interviewed a fair, random sample of the public,” he explained.
For example, the Financial Times reported that the poll asked respondents to rank their “willingness” to pay more for alternative energy sources on a scale of 1 to 10, and noted only that 21 percent of respondents “reported a score of eight or more.” Did this mean that 21 percent were highly willing? Were people who reported rankings of five, six or seven “somewhat” willing? Did the poll have descriptors associated with different parts of the numerical range? The article did not say.
Thanks, but we’re not sharing
When we emailed Lazard for a copy of the poll, Monica Orbe, Lazard’s vice-president for global communications, replied, “We are not distributing the poll for the time being.” We followed up by clarifying that we were interested only in the information that related to the poll results reported in the Financial Times, including basic information such as the poll’s margin of error and the name of the firm that conducted the poll. We suggested that providing the language of the questions posed relating to green energy would be something that Lazard would want to share “so that readers would be able to assess how the reported result was yielded.”
Lazard would not provide any information, stating only that the Financial Times report was accurate.
Our efforts with the Financial Times were similarly unavailing. In the course of email exchanges with Ed Crooks, the author of the story, he acknowledged that, “It is of course very important in reporting a poll to know who was asked, what they were asked, and what they answered,” but said, “[Y]ou will understand that we can’t hand out information like that.”
But AAPOR’s Keeter had a different view: “Once the story has been written, you really cannot claim exclusivity in the sense of not sharing the internal details of the report,” he said.
A follow-up email to the Financial Times’ Crooks clarified that we were only looking for the subset of poll information that related to the published portion of the poll. We did not receive a response.
Disclosure is standard practice
The type of information that Remapping Debate sought is routinely released by pollsters in connection with the reporting of poll results. AAPOR’s Code of Professional Ethics and Practice states that, “Good professional practice imposes the obligation upon all survey and public opinion researchers to disclose certain essential information about how the research was conducted.” Information such as the sponsors of an opinion poll, the poll’s margin of error, sample size and design, and the exact wording of questions should, according to AAPOR, be made available “immediately upon release” of a poll’s results. Consistent with this, polling organizations such as Pew and Gallup post their full questionnaires and tabulated results online, and news reports commonly provide this information either in the body of the story or in a sidebar.
AAPOR is not alone in promoting the release of this information to the public: both the Council of American Survey Research Organizations and the British Polling Council have similar codes. All three organizations state that polls’ complete question wording must be released. “Question wording is probably number one,” explained AAPOR’s Keeter, “because that’s the easiest way to bias a survey.”