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KMOV poll turns viewers' opinions into instant news.

"Hello, This is Julius Hunter. I'm calling from KMOV-TV to learn what you think about an important issue . . ." Would you hang up? Well hundreds of St. Louisans don't: they stay on the line to hear the recorded voice of Julius instruct them to push 1 if they agree or 2 if they don't and then they learn that their opinions, polled even as late as 6 p.m. or 9 p.m. will be reported on the news that very evening!

KMOV is conducting a Flash Poll, a media service created by Hypotenuse Inc., a New Jersey research company started by native St. Louisans and former journalists Jay Leve and Fred Bierman, classmates at Ladue High in the 1970s. These St. Louisans have made good in more than 42 markets, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. They are shooting for 100.

With the Hypotenuse system, stations can daily survey opinion in their markets by calling an 800 number and recording a question to be posed, by automatic transmission, to 500 respondents in their area. The results of questions recorded by 3 p.m. are available by 9:30 p.m.

This is research designed by "news reporters for use by news reporters," says the promotional literature. The results are delivered with detailed camera-ready graphics for instant on-air reporting.

KMOV's news director Steve Hammel says, "This is just one more tool we use to give information. We see it as a piece of interactive journalism. People are interested in what other people think. It's a way of communicating. People say, 'I didn't realize that a lot of people felt that way about it.' The poll forces them to think about how they would respond."

Gallop found years ago that people interviewed by the Gallop Poll were more likely to vote than people not interviewed.

The question has been raised, are flash poll results news? Undoubtedly, some are, but less so in KMOV's Flash Poll on Nov. 8, finding that "St. Louisans' favor Bosley Senior's paddling proposal by more than 2:1." Might not such information more properly be called mildly interesting and somewhat entertaining?

In addition to entertaining, quick response polls are thought to be great audience builders. Hypotenuse claims "ratings way up" at their client stations. Perhaps the promise to improve ratings has some influence on the success of the Flash Poll and its competitors. That would not be news either.

But is it research? It is a new methodology being tested. Hypotenuse works with a good random list obtained from the highly respected Survey Sampling, Inc. Leve reports a response rate of 65 percent, indicating the completions of interviews begun with eligible human beings, (eliminating under age respondents, telephone answering machines, etc.). While 65 percent does not meet government research standards, it equals the return for much commercial market research. However, researchers always worry whether the nonresponding 35 percent hides some bias.

Time and technology raise additional concerns of bias. A touchtone phone is necessary to participate. According to Leve, 20 percent of the population still uses rotary instruments, "but that's a changing number," he is quick to add, "and higher in established urban areas than in newer cities where many of our clients are." He is correct.

A more serious problem is the turnaround time. Calling people only between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. on a given night is a "catch-as-catch-can" operation. Three hours is inadequate to give the randomly selected sample a chance to be worked with recalls, although Hypotenuse's system has the capability to recall respondents and, on less constrained surveys, uses it, Leve says.

The program has major strengths. The technique of using the pre-recorded voice of an anchorperson as interviewer eliminates two problems of traditional survey fieldwork: one, how to gain credibility and two, how to control interviewer effects. The anchorperson automatically brings the credibility of self and TV station to the research situation. That appears to be effective.

Secondly, use of a recorded message guarantees that each respondent is given the same stimulus. No more worrying about whether the interviewers are leading the respondent, if they are changing the question in restating it, if they are calling the prescribed numbers, or if they are talking to an actual rather than a fabricated person!

For media, the major strength is the general opening of the fact base for news. Media are no longer captives of pundits who proclaim to know what the public thinks. Media can check it themselves. Information is able to flow freely around a topic, no longer structured by strategic data released with the spin of some special interest.

It is a danger, however, that the Flash Poll and its clones might be used by media for "Pabugging" (Pandering for audience building under the guise" of research), a takeoff of the American Association of Public Opinion Research standards committee's categorizing of abuses of survey research as "Frugging" (fund raising under the guise of) and "Slugging" (selling under the guise of).

If so, the flaw would not be the technology, but how it is used. The warning to news directors is to avoid "O.J. Madonnaisms" and to use the tool at hand to probe the issues.

Firms like Hypotenuse are pushing the technology and lead the way in determining what is possible. Phil Meyer, author of "Precision Journalism," applauds the increased use of research in journalism, but cautions: "Journalists must hold themselves to the same standards they require of others."

The technology is moving faster than the methodology. Efforts to keep methodology and technology together require scrupulous attention to the scope of the claims. It would be more accurate to qualify the reports as representing the "opinions of St. Louisans available between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. this evening" than to overstate the case and claim the results to be statistically sound for "the St. Louis viewing public."
COPYRIGHT 1995 SJR St. Louis Journalism Review
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Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:KMOV-TV, St. Louis, Missouri
Author:Charron, Donna Card
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Date:Feb 1, 1995
Words:982
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