SECTIONS

Media ought to always treat opinion polls with suspicion

Predatory pollsters sit behind the keyboards. [iStockphoto]

Today, I caution the media against the highly invasive predatory pollsters - I use the term ‘predatory pollsters’ to refer to pollsters who charge politicians to poll in their favour or are paid to release misleading survey results.

Predatory pollsters are characterised by political inclinations and flagrant bias - those institutions whose ‘experts’ sit down and manufacture false results and present them to citizens through media. We must launch a conversation about predatory pollsters.

Recently, there has been a proliferation of poll reports released to our media. Our media, honest, innocent and truthful, admit such results as breaking news. Media, be warned! But that doesn’t mean there we are short of credible opinion polls.

Expectedly, we are to be treated to contrasting opinion poll survey results, some favouring the Azimio la Umoja coalition and others favouring Kenya Kwanza as we saw towards the end of the 2017 General Election. Such wonders are bound to come in the wake of predatory pollsters!

Since the inception of mediatised opinion polling in Kenya in 2005, the polls have always concentrated on creating political ‘horses’ and sieving out the ‘donkeys’.

The media has relied on opinion survey reporting to mainstream horserace journalism - a reporting pathway that capitalises on polling data and distorted public perception created through a display of wealth, might and influence while ignoring candidates’ policy, constructive ideologies and manifestos.

Predatory pollsters sit behind the keyboards, cook data in favour of their financiers, and generate descriptive data they call for pressers. The media come running for the results, and without question, the next minute, the country is treated to breaking news of who is super popular. Predatory polling did not start in Kenya—it started in the United States.

Predatory pollsters sit behind the keyboards. [iStockphoto]

Notably, the 2016 and 2020 pre-elections pollsters in the United States are on trial for falling short of accuracy. Political pundits with an interest in the elections of the world superpower have accused the pollsters of blatant bias and traps of asking leading questions that never reflected the opinion of the voters. Resultantly, they downplayed the support for Republicans across the United States twice. The United States media publicised biased polls.

To avoid falling victim to predatory pollsters, the media must demand citizen-centred opinion polling, which focuses on citizens’ services improvement based on priorities and needs, rather than the big man’s sensational popularity. Moreover, opinion polling should not be constrained to celebrity politicians; they are a site for informing representative democracy and curving a pathway for robust policies.

Opinion surveys are a sure approach to obtaining people’s views if done objectively. When it is a genuine study of the thinking of the citizens about politics and policies, the results are a genuine contribution to democracy. Pollsters should capture citizens’ expectations of the leaders to be. This means the media should demand from the pollsters why the surveyed citizens preferred one or some candidates to others.

Moreover, credible and balanced opinion surveys should encourage aspiring leaders to prioritise and develop policies and ways of uplifting the welfare of citizens. In this case, it is incumbent upon the media to demand extra information from pollsters, apart from who is famous.

A colleague said that it is only in Kenya where no single citizen comes out to confess their taking part in an opinion poll. I say Kenyans are all over—maybe the pollsters interview those living on the moon because they have a better perspective of us from there. This is not far from the truth—opinion pollsters are major financial reapers during general elections. That’s why they proliferate during campaigns, and toward elections

In conclusion, the media should beware of propaganda poll results, which are consistently sensational and have nothing to benefit mwananchi or inform future policy. Any opinion survey falling short of credible and verifiable methodology is a candidate for a predatory pollster.

-Dr Ndonye is a lecturer in the School of Music and Media at Kabarak University