Dickinson Press Oil Impacts Survey Is Irresponsible Journalism

A while back I saw that the Dickinson Press newspaper was asking readers to vote in an online survey about the impacts of the oil boom on their community. I clicked to take the survey – hosted by online polling website Survey Monkey – because I was interested in the questions, but I didn’t make much of the survey because online polls are pretty much worthless.

What’s surprising is that Press editor Dustin Monke has taken the results of the survey and turned them into a lengthy article analyzing the results.

Which aren’t pretty. If the survey can be believed – more on that in a moment – most people in Dickinson are unhappy with oil patch impacts. “Of the 1,310 readers who voted in the survey online or through the newspaper over the last two weeks, 57 percent said they don’t believe the area is a better place than it was five years ago,” writes Monke. “Sixty-four percent have mixed feelings on the energy industry’s impact on the area, saying it has brought a combination of good and bad impacts.”

But nowhere in Monke’s story is this simple fact mentioned: This survey is not reliable, and not scientific.

I quote, from my 2013 edition of the Associated Press Stylebook: “Only a poll based on a scientific, random sample of a population – in which every member of the population has a known probability of inclusion – can be considered a valid and reliable measure of that population’s opinions.”

Again, I took the survey, and I live hundreds of miles from Dickinson. How many other people from outside of Dickinson took the poll, sharing opinions not formed through actually living in Dickinson? How many of the respondents weren’t from Dickinson and were taking the poll because of political reasons, because they’re for or against oil development? What controls were there for ensuring that the respondents are a representative sample of all of Dickinson?

The Press can’t answer these questions. Which makes you wonder why they’re bothering to write a report about a survey that may or may not be accurate. The Press is presenting this survey as representative of Dickinson’s citizens, but there are no assurances that most of the people took the poll are even from the Dickinson area.

Monke’s article doesn’t even have a disclaimer about the fact that the survey is not scientific, and not controlled for residency, which might be important information for readers to factor in.

It could very well be that the survey is reflective of attitudes in Dickinson, though it’s at odds with scientific polling released in January which showed very different views (albeit polling that was sponsored by the oil industry, so take that with a big grain of salt). The problem is, we can’t say that the polling is reflective of anything other than visitors to the Dickinson Press website who happened to answer the questions.

The oil boom’s impacts in the state are a serious issue, deserving of a better sort of journalism than this.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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