Research Communications

Scripps Survey Research Center offers research tool with nationwide reach 

January 2009

survey_center3Room 404 of the Central Classroom Building bustles with activity as Ohio University students make telephone calls to citizens in Ohio and West Virginia to survey them about health care. Megan Klingshirn, a junior public relations major and shift supervisor for the Scripps Survey Research Center, sits tucked in an expanse of grey cubicles where the students are busy typing survey responses into computers.

The caller on the other end of Klingshirn’s line hangs up, but the student just shakes her head and a smile spreads across her face. She says she has learned not to take it personally. It’s all just part of the job.

“Sometimes people react really harshly, but you just can’t let it get to you — you just have to laugh it off,” Klingshirn said. “And then sometimes you get a lot of characters — people who will laugh and talk with you or tell you more in-depth opinions.”

The center, co-directed by the Scripps College of Communication and the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, conducts survey research for a range of clients. The E.W. Scripps School of Journalism and the Scripps Howard News Foundation began conducting public opinion polls in 1992, which led to the establishment of the center in 1997. It began its formal partnership with the Voinovich School in the 2006-2007 academic year.

The Scripps Survey Research Center is a resource available to faculty and graduate students for scholarly research — including some projects funded by the National Science Foundation, grant-funded faculty research and some dissertation-related survey work — as well as to government agencies, private nonprofit organizations and businesses for applied research.

In the past two years, most of the clients have been organizations and initiatives that work with the Voinovich School — including the RAND Corporation, the Ohio Department of Education and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources — while the Scripps Howard News Foundation continues to use the center to poll Americans nationwide about current issues every quarter.

Jerry Miller and Ani Ruhil, co-directors of the center, invite more Ohio University faculty and graduate students to use the facility for research.

“It’s important to recognize that we have a state-of-the-art facility available when faculty are putting together their research agendas and to consider what we and the Voinovich School have to offer,” Miller said.

The center staff can design surveys, construct sampling frames and conduct surveys, Ruhil said, and also help with data analyses — from a simple descriptive exercise to more complicated statistical analyses.

“We’d like faculty to consider the center before going out and contracting with what might be an organization that could potentially be more expensive and less responsive,” added Sara Boyd, senior project manager at the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs.

Center directors also hope to deliver more formal instruction in survey research. A graduate certificate program may be in the works.

“In political science, communication studies, sociology, psychology, development studies, business — you name it — survey research has a major role, so we’re working towards the development of a curriculum that would give people a certificate,” she said.

Phone surveys can be an effective tool when trying to reach households in a specific geographic region or target specific businesses or population groups, Boyd said.  However, there are a number of other ways in which survey information can be collected besides by telephone.

Web surveys are best for audiences who regularly open e-mail, such as business or government employees and teachers. Web surveys are deployed rapidly and are relatively inexpensive, as there are no postal costs, phone or interviewer costs. Paper and pencil surveys can be distributed to widely dispersed groups of respondents or can be targeted to those participating in a specific program or event. Paper and pencil surveys are still the leading type of survey method used because they are the simplest technology, Boyd said.

The Voinovich School has the expertise and specialized software for use with Web surveys and pen and paper surveys, including mail surveys, and has helped faculty, staff and external clients decide what type of survey is best for the project. Sometimes projects incorporate multi-mode surveys (such as a combination of web and paper surveys).  

Students working at the center can complete as many as 100 surveys per night, or up to 500 surveys per week. The number of surveys completed may vary depending on the topic area and population being contacted.

The student workers are often involved in completing local, regional and national surveys that can have far-reaching effects.

A Scripps Howard national survey conducted after 9/11 asked Americans to weigh in on the possibility of a government conspiracy. The results of this survey made news worldwide and prompted a denial from a State Department official. The national surveys often cover other controversial topics, such as life on other planets. These survey questions can evoke some interesting responses, the student employees said.

“Some people would just laugh, and it’s kind of hard not to laugh when you’re asking those questions, but some people would say, ‘Yeah man, I totally saw a UFO,’” Klingshirn said with a laugh.

Another survey conducted by the Scripps Survey Research Center, which showed that Americans didn’t understand the color-coded National Security Threat Condition, was referenced during discussions about the problem in the House of Representatives.

Other surveys, such as the Ohio University Appalachian Regional Health Institute’s Health Needs Assessment survey, research risk factors and prevalence rates for diabetes and other chronic health conditions, which can help shed light on social problems and point to areas where more assistance is needed. Another example is the Paving the Way survey, which investigated commuting patterns and transportation information needs among residents of Franklin County.

Not only do these surveys provide valuable knowledge for the researchers, but the student employees who make the calls gain from the experience as well. Max Laird, a graduate research assistant operations manager, noticed how beneficial it is for the students he supervises to talk to people across the country.

“All the students generate their own worldview, but it’s interesting for them to compare it with the people on the other end of the phone. It’s really eye-opening,” Laird said.

When asked about the most interesting survey they have ever worked with, student employees were eager to talk about conducting political surveys on people’s views about candidates and issues in the recent national election.

“I’ve been here since last winter, so it’s interesting to see how the political survey has evolved each time, and to see what people are thinking,” Klingshirn said. “It started off that we were asking questions about Hillary Clinton and how people were reacting to having a woman running, and now it’s about Barack Obama.”

By Jaclyn Lipp

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