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Washington Post pollster gives talk on applications of national opinion polls

Cavalier Daily Staff Writer

Covering everything from election horseraces to athletes' salaries, pollsters are everywhere. And yesterday, one came to the University when Richard Morin, Director of Polls for The Washington Post, gave about 50 University students and faculty the chance to hear the inside scoop.

Thomas Guterbock, Center for Survey Research Director and Sociology Associate Professor, brought Morin to the University to give audience members a look at the practices of media polling and its effects.

"I wanted students to hear from one of the most respected [journalists] who does polling," Guterbock said.

According to Morin, national news organizations pump large amounts of money into polling. For example, The Washington Post alone spent $650,000 last year, an increase of more than $400,000 since The Post first began polling in the early 1980s.

In explaining how polling works, Morin used The Post's Chilton Research Firm as a model. In many cases, he said, "The Post relies on the firm to do polling after the evening news before the next morning's paper goes to print. In those cases, the Firm might conduct more than 2,000 20-minute interviews in a single night, sometimes costing The Post more than $40,000 to fund a single poll," Morin said.

"Public opinion is out there, [and my job] is to attempt to capture it through a poll," he said.

For Morin, capturing the public's opinion through numbers began in a much more rudimentary way at The Miami Herald, Morin's previous employer. There, Pulitzer Prize winner Gene Miller began the "Joe Smith" poll -- calling people from all around the country who have the name Joe Smith -- to gauge public opinion on a particular issue.

Now, with advanced technology, polling has "come a long way," Morin said.

While Morin's speech highlighted the way polls are used, he also delved into some of the problems associated with their use.

Some media outlets, for example, use polls to confuse people, ignoring discrepancies in poll data, Morin said. Some "do a poor job of explaining nuances in a very nuance-[filled] job," he said.

Such a negative view of the media is what brought first-year college student Patrick Gregory to the lecture.

"I watch the news a lot," Gregory said. Hearing so many negative views on polling "made me want to get a viewpoint from someone who does it."

Another problem with polling is the way the media tries to influence its audience, Morin said.

The media tries to "initiate before public opinion is formed," he said, referring to the early timing of many polls.

One recent trend Morin pointed out is the increasing use of local polls in the print media.

For example, the Metro section at The Post has seen a 40 percent increase in its resources, whereas the paper's national news staff has been steady in its respective resources, he said.

Overall, students attending the speech said it was an informative one.

"There was a lot of information," second-year college student Connie Wu said. "It interested a lot of people, [and] I learned a lot about polling."