Research center asks all the right questions, informs with answers
Sept. 28, 2005
By Chuck Bowen
Do you believe in Santa Claus? How much do you think it would cost to remodel your kitchen? Do you think the government is hiding evidence of flying saucers? Do you believe in ghosts? Have you ever been sexually harassed? Do you think the president is doing a good job?
Those are among the thousands of questions the Scripps Survey Research Center has asked Americans over the past decade. The center, tucked away on the fourth floor of the Central Classroom Building on the west edge of campus, accommodates 20 computer terminals and a like number of inquisitive students.
Despite its modest appearance, the center -- a joint effort of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism and the Scripps Howard News Service -- has the potential to put Ohio University on the pages of more than 400 newspapers with some 15 million readers.
"We try to have one question that's never been asked before, as a rule of thumb," says Thomas Hargrove, director of research for Scripps Howard News Service and co-founder of the center. "Our vision is to ask the questions that others aren't asking."
The impetus for the center came in 1992, when the news service decided to do a survey on voter turnout in that year's election. Scripps Howard sent Hargrove to Ohio University, where he teamed up with Professor of Journalism Guido Stempel, now director of the center. The '92 survey went so well, the two organizations decided to keep the relationship alive.
The center's team of students does the calling for its surveys, using a computer to randomly dial one of 1.4 billion phone numbers in America. Once a pollster gets a willing respondent on the phone, he or she asks about 40 questions and enters the data into a computer. Thanks to advances in technology, as soon as the last call is complete, the results are ready to send on to Scripps Howard.
Professor Dan Riffe has incorporated the center's operation into his graduate classes for five years in an effort to teach students more about research methods. Some students use survey data in their thesis projects.
"I find that they seem to internalize a lot of the teaching points about social science in general if they've had the firsthand experience with the survey center," he says. "And it probably makes them a little more critical in terms of evaluating surveys."
Stempel says the experience is invaluable to journalism students.
"I think every journalism student should do some surveying," he says. "Talking to the average American who's on the other end of the telephone is entirely different than talking to the mayor of Athens or the president of Student Senate or the chairman of the committee for the preservation of old test files or whatever."
Kortney Humes, a junior majoring in education, worked on two of the center's recent surveys for the College of Osteopathic Medicine.
"I think it makes it easy to talk to people, people you've never met," she says. "I had a gentleman talk to me for 15 minutes about his medical history and his trouble getting things faxed between hospitals. When people are directly affected, then they'll give their opinion and have a conversation with you."
The results of national surveys also are posted to the center's Web site, www.newspolls.org, and can be accessed by anyone, anywhere.
"We've always been completely open," Stempel says. "That's in marked contrast to most other survey organizations, which want to charge you money for results."
Hargrove says a good example of the national impact of the center's work played out in a congressional committee, which put Tom Ridge, then in his first few months as the United States' first secretary of homeland security, on the spot.
The center had just completed a survey showing most Americans didn't know the current warning level under the department's new color-coded terror alert system. Ridge had to explain to the committee why citizens were in the dark.
"The quote was, 'The poll shows we have work to do,'" Hargrove says. "Politicians would ignore survey results at their peril. A limited number of very rich people can influence (politicians), and those are all distorted views of how the public really feels."
Access to national data provided by the center is an advantage for faculty, Stempel says, and the reporting of survey results creates visibility for the university.
"We have the ability to say to a faculty member who's doing a study, 'OK, we can get you national data on this topic,' which makes that research more salable than if that person surveys Athens County or even the state of Ohio," he says. "And all the surveys say they were done here. That's putting the name of Ohio University in front of a lot of people."
Chuck Bowen, BSJ '05, was a student writer for Ohio Today in 2004-05. This story appears in the Fall 2005 Ohio Today.