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American Association for Public Opinion Research

2005 Presidential Address

2005 Presidential Address from the AAPOR 60th Annual Conference

Privilege, Moral Responsibility, and Diversity in Public Opinion Research by Nancy Belden



This was an active year for the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR), in which we accomplished many things and envisioned more to come. Among other things, we clarified our Code of Professional Ethics and Practices; we began a long-range planning process; and we launched an AAPOR communications initiative to educate policymakers, the press, and the public about the value of survey and public opinion research. In the past we have focused on defending ourselves from criticisms; through our communications program this year we began to move beyond playing defense and to tell our own story. This effort has been funded with seed money from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the Pew Center for the People and the Press. Part of our new program includes seminars to provide reporters and editors the tools to do a better job judging and writing about surveys. Other components of this program we hope will be coming through the pipeline soon.

We do not expect this program to produce miracles, but we would like to reach the point where we never hear another chair of a congressional appropriations committee indignantly exclaim (and I am not making this up), “We do not need a census. I have all the statistics I need here in theStatistical Abstracts put out by the government.”

Our AAPOR initiative has caused me to reflect on our profession and the power that comes with it. How we as individuals use that power—and the important role that AAPOR can play as a friend and guide to all of us—is what I will spend a few minutes talking about today.

My message can be summed up in three assertions. First, what we do is a privilege. Public opinion and survey research is more than just a way to make a living, because it has enormous impact on the lives of others. Second, we have a responsibility not only to do good work, but also to use our work to “do good.” Third, AAPOR is the one organization in this country that must take on the job of creating a greater culture of responsibility, both to do good work and to do good, in the public opinion field. Ours is the organization for this job because only AAPOR can be the big tent that welcomes all. Thus, AAPOR must open its tent wider and issue a louder, more persuasive call to those who are not yet among us. 

Our Privilege

Whether you are a sampling expert at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, run a survey lab at a university, write marketing surveys for corporations, or conduct strategic research for nonprofit and political organizations, you are privileged to hold in your hands the tools for understanding the dynamic, democratic phenomenon we call public opinion.

We have the ability to understand the collective conscience of our town, our state, our nation. We fill in the whys and wherefores that explain who we are as a public. We are the people who pursue such questions as: Why do Americans choose someone for president whose policies they oppose? Why do people practice unsafe sex? How can they be persuaded otherwise? How many children in the United States, Canada, or Mexico need immunizations? How much confidence do consumers and investors have in the economy?

The answers to our questions help us to understand what we as a people believe, what we need, and what we desire. Ultimately, our research records history and should help society change for the better. Indeed, some of our work is responsible for saving lives. For instance, our policy impact award this year honors work that is helping eliminate the horror of AIDS. Some of our work saves quality of life. For example, my partners’ research helped rally the people of Montana to stand up and say no to gold mines that dump cyanide into water supplies. And some of our work guards our humanity. This year’s AAPOR book award honors four individuals who are helping us understand attitudes on race, and what could be more important than improving race relations in this country?

Indeed, many of you in this room are studying or laboring in ways that are making a difference for people. As a member of the community of individuals who know how to ask questions and who are seeking to know more about how to conduct research effectively, what you discover even in small bits about sampling, or analysis, or asking a single type of question that gets at the truth—be it sexual identity, preferences in refrigerators, how young people are planning to vote, what radio station people listen to, or how people travel to work—no matter, your work can contribute to the field, helping all of us do our work better. Thus it contributes to society.

Our Responsibility to “Do Good”

With our influence and power comes a responsibility to use our work for good. This means first of all, of course, to do good work. It means respecting respondents, writing questionnaires that are clear, not cutting corners. However, our responsibility goes beyond just doing good work. We also have a responsibility not to cause harm. As public opinion researchers we are armed, and we are potentially dangerous. We know that our craft can be used in harmful ways. It can be manipulated. It can mislead or confuse.

So let me assert something a bit radical perhaps. Because our work can be influential and potentially dangerous, our responsibility lies beyond simply following methodological rules. We must consider our work according to our personal principles of right and wrong.

I am reminded of a story my father tells of a poll he conducted in 1946. This was the early days of the Texas Poll, which was syndicated and published in newspapers around the state. Daddy had a cross-tab showing that one candidate was receiving the lion’s share of the black vote. On the one hand, he feared that publishing the cross-tab would feed into the racism of the times. On the other hand, he felt an obligation to report the factual findings of his poll. He brought this dilemma to the discussions at the first gathering of pollsters in Central City, Colorado—the meeting that gave birth to AAPOR. There he and his research colleagues discussed and considered the moral implications of their work. Jack Elinson recalls that it was suggested that my father publish the cross-tab but not until after the election. Under the journalistic code today, the decision to publish would be the norm, but the decision was not so clear in the early days. In any case, I am not arguing for or against using the race data in the news release. My point is simply that like those colleagues who gathered at Central City, we need to consider the moral implications of our work.

As in 1946, today we have a responsibility to consult not just our careers but also our consciences before we use our craft to push a product, a political party, or a published piece; before we advocate for a candidate, a corporation, or a think tank’s position; or before we support an industry, interest group, or government decision. No matter what we do, we have a responsibility to weigh the consequences and to apply our moral compass to our work. I might ask myself: Does my work contribute to greater understanding, or does it confuse and distract? Does it help sell products or policies that I believe are harmful? Like Daddy’s dilemma, not all of the choices we might make are clear-cut, and each of us may see the merits of a decision differently. We talk frequently in this organization about the AAPOR Code. For me what is implicit in that code is: to not just do good work, but to use your power to do good.

Our Big Tent

AAPOR needs to take the leadership in creating a culture of responsibility in the survey and opinion research field. The AAPOR created by our mothers and fathers occupies a distinct place filled by no other organization. We admit anyone who will subscribe to the code; there is no test to take and no bar to jump over. Instead, AAPOR is a collection of individuals who volunteer to be members. It is both multidisciplinary and non–discipline specific. AAPOR is the only place where all individuals involved in any aspect of survey and public opinion research can come together and exchange ideas, debate issues, discuss challenges. CASRO, the Market Research Association, the American Statistical Association, CMOR, the Advertising Research Foundation, the Qualitative Research Consultants Association, and other excellent organizations are specific to certain segments of our industry and serve them well. But only AAPOR brings us all together.

AAPOR has the potential to be truly representative of the survey and opinion research world, but, despite its broad reach, we are not adequately representative today. Many political and market researchers remain outside our organization. That needs to change because only by expanding our tent can AAPOR influence the field and create a widely shared culture of responsibility among public opinion and survey researchers. We need an aggressive program of outreach to attract researchers who are not now under our tent to allow AAPOR to stay vital.

Some among us have lamented the fact that AAPOR has already grown so much in sheer numbers, with nearly 2,000 members and over 900 attending this conference. I, too, want to hang on to that sense of community we have enjoyed over the years, but we must find ways to preserve that community feeling within a much larger entity. Unless we expand the tent, those of us left under it will find the world passing us by because, whether we like it or not, the nature of our field makes it open to anyone. Think of it like language. We can all learn to speak. Perhaps you learn to speak the Spanish language and to speak it fluently, mastering the diphthong and the subjunctive. But that does not mean you can speak French or Arabic—even though you use the same tools of breath and vocal cords and lips. In research our tools are sampling, questions, computers and software to crunch numbers, humans to do interviewing, and so on, yet our uses and our training and expertise are widely different one from the next.

For the most part this diversity is a very good thing. It produces polls that are innovative, timely, and sometimes help us to save lives and to understand better where we are going as a society. However, along with the good come the bad and the ugly. As I said earlier, anyone can get into this field, and some act responsibly and wisely, while others do not. Not everyone who has a letterhead or business card that says “survey research” or “focus group moderator” or “public opinion pollster” does it well. We cannot prevent people from using the tools of the trade, even if they do not know how to use them well or do not want to, any more than you can prevent me from speaking Italian poorly.

We must embrace the fact that we do not own public opinion and survey research and that no branch of research or institution owns it. No more than anyone owns Spanish or Italian, or for that matter journalism or pastry baking. In the end, what we do is a form of free speech—and all are free to exercise it. From the tabloid’s poll on how people feel about alien invasions from Mars to the professor whose class made up the interviews in a survey used to support a change of venue in the Scott Peterson murder trial, there are plenty of blemishes on the polling industry.

Our Challenge

AAPOR must never abandon its dedication to promote best practices or to bring standards cases against wrongdoers. In fact, the AAPOR procedures offer one of the few serious avenues in the industry for confronting purveyors of bad polling. But our procedures are often inadequate. We do not get to the scene of the crime in time; we do not have the resources to investigate; and we do not have the resources to apply our policies everywhere they might be needed. We do not have enough whistles and nightsticks to police every poll, nor should we embark on some divisive attempt to act as the poll police.

There is a better way to promote best practices. AAPOR serves research best, not by being a senior society that meets to set down rules to judge others in the field, but rather by being an open society that welcomes the sinners as well as saints—because when we welcome them to our association, the sinners may get religion, and even saints have sinned at some point.

The problem is, as open as we are, AAPOR does not attract many participants from all types of practitioner groups. The lack of diversity matters because the variety of our membership is what allows us to learn from each other and meet our responsibilities to do our best work, to stretch our thinking, to consider new ideas and methods, and even to weigh the consequences of our work. We need each other in ways we may not be fully aware of much of the time. Private sector practitioners need the thoughtful findings from scholarly work. Scholars can learn much from private practitioners about real applications of their work. The media pollsters learn from both these groups and then take what they need and do more than most of us to communicate our craft to the public. This mix of experiences and pressures is already a large part of the magic of AAPOR. To the extent that we allow other sectors of the opinion research industry to go without this experience—as long as they remain outside our tent—they and we are not well served. If we are to have a positive impact on the profession, we must have a membership that reflects all who are practicing and want to do good work.

Let me close by going back to the beginning. When the founders of AAPOR met in Central City, Colorado, in 1946, the assembled group included George Gallup and others, as well as my father, Joe Belden. They met to discuss everything from how to pull a sample to how to ask the marital question, to how much to pay interviewers. (By the way, we are told Dr. Gallup paid interviewers the least.) All were welcome, and they spoke openly. Nearly 60 years later, we inherit the wisdom and work ethic of those who have come before us. Every day we stand on the foundation built by others, and we benefit from the thousands of panels, debates, and shouting matches in the dozens of AAPOR meetings across the United States and Canada over the years. Each one of us can carry AAPOR into the future by helping to pitch this bigger tent. I urge all of you to help create a stronger, more diverse AAPOR. Reach out to new members and bring them in. Like Noah, we need to seek out pairs of species who are not yet on our ark and under our roof. To the academics, my message is: we need you. To those of you working in government and media research, we need you. To those of you in market research and political polling, and everyone else who may be doing things a little differently, we need you, too, because AAPOR is a place to air differences and to give new ideas a chance to breathe. My hope is that when we come back next year and the years after that, we find AAPOR’s tent is a little bigger, AAPOR’s membership is more diverse, and AAPOR’s voice is saying to all who do this work: there is a meeting place for all of you.