Fair and accurate reporting on opinion polls necessary during elections

Opinion polls forecasting the results of an election can be expected during elections and citizens will generally learn about these through the media. However, care must be taken in reporting opinion polls so that they do not unfairly influence election outcomes. A group called the Pan African Forum Limited conducted an opinion poll on elections titled “Zimbabwe Presidential Opinion Poll”. This opinion poll was reported by The Herald newspaper on 30 May 2018.

While it is important for citizens to know such information, the manner in which The Herald reported the results of this poll are problematic. Reports should reveal factual information, which includes; the number of people interviewed; the researchers who conducted the survey; the time frame and the margin of error presented by the paper. In The Herald’s report other facts such as who sponsored this poll, and the structure of the poll were left out. It would have been good to provide full contextual background on this poll. Understanding the structure of the sample allows people to contextualize information provided. It would be important to present information on the geographical scope, the demography and the sampling method that was used to choose the respondents in the survey.

In addition, opinion polls are only suggestive; they do not show or prove definitively that something is going to happen. The manner in which The Herald wrote the story is therefore misleading. The paper presented the results of the poll as statements of fact and not just a once off study.

The excerpts below show where in the report, The Herald used language that does not “suggest” but claim to “show” or “prove” with certainty what the election outcome will be.

  • If Zimbabwe holds harmonized elections today, Zanu-PF presidential candidate Cde Emmerson Mnangagwa will garner 70 percent of the vote against MDC Alliance leader Mr Nelson Chamisa’s 24 percent an opinion poll by the Pan African Forum Limited has revealed.
  • The Kenya-based network of African scholars conducted the poll whose results released yesterday, show that President Mnangagwa is the people’s favourite and so is his Zanu-PF party.
  • If MDC leader Professor Welshman Ncube was to participate in the Presidential election, he would only manage 1.0 percent, the survey showed.
  • It revealed that 98 percent of registered voters are certain or somewhat certain that they will vote in the next general election. This means that a shift of the vote arising from apathy is minimal and there is little room for a swing vote that might influence the outcome
  • The little support enjoyed by MDC- led by Prof Ncube, NPP and other minority political parties suggests that coalition building will not change the poll results. In other words, the MDC-T did not need an alliance with anyone as coalition partners do not matter numerically.
  • This shows MDC-Alliance politics is not gendered. It is a telling story of an opposition woman looking for a new home in Zanu-PF.
  • The Pan African Forum Ltd survey also came up with a list of top issues that voters would want addressed by aspiring Presidential candidates, which largely speaks to the Zanu-PF manifesto.

As we are going towards elections there is likely to be more reportage on election polls in the newspapers and broadcast media. However, general rules must be followed when reporting electoral polls. These guidelines include:

  • The language used in reporting must be appropriate and not give overemphasized credibility to polls. Polls suggest, not show or prove.
  • Polls are usually accompanied by a lot of statistics which must be accurately reflected on by the media
  • The media should clearly without any misgivings state:
    • a) Who conducted the survey
    • b) Who funded the survey
    • c) The period in which the survey was conducted
    • d) Methodology used
    • e) The number of people who were respondents
    • f) Structure of the sample
    • g) The margin of error.
  • The media must provide the audiences with sufficient information to make their own informed judgments from the polls and avoid unnecessary influence on the electorate.
  • Reporting opinion polls must be included within media houses’ standards of reporting as well as codes of conduct of other regulatory bodies.

Source: Media Monitors