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  • Dec 05 / 2016
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Chinese tourists in Kazakhstan. (David Trilling)
China, Economics, Environment, Globalization, Sustainability

China’s tourists: Economics, the environment and what they want

In less than a generation, China’s roaring economy has created the world’s largest pool of eager spenders. The People’s Republic of China now has 116 million middle class and wealthy households, compared to just 2 million in 2000, according to McKinsey, a global consultancy. With a total population of 1.38 billion, many millions more should enter the consumer classes in the near future.

Boosted by these climbing incomes, and less government restrictions on travel, more Chinese are now traveling for fun — both domestically and abroad. In 2011, Chinese citizens took 70 million trips abroad for leisure and business. In 2014, according to the latest data available from the UN World Tourism Organization, that rose to 107 million. Goldman Sachs, a bank, predicts 100 million new Chinese will acquire passports by 2025. (Much of the data on tourism is collected by the private sector.)

Entertainment, including travel, will be the biggest growth category in China in the coming years, Goldman Sachs expects. According to UN data, Chinese travelers’ spending more than doubled between 2012 and 2015. Shopping plays a big role in where and how the Chinese vacation: A 2016 McKinsey survey found 47 percent say shopping is “an important part of my holidays.”

Chinese students abroad are also an economic phenomenon. Over 30 percent of the 1.04 million foreign college students in the United States hail from China, according to U.S. government-supported data. Their number has grown five-fold in 10 years, making Chinese students the largest foreign contingent by a wide margin. And sometimes their parents visit.

These social transformations and China’s economic heft are the focus of a growing body of academic inquiry.

For China’s neighbors, tourism – specifically Chinese visitors – is increasingly important to local economies, according to a 2016 paper by the International Monetary Fund. Indeed, much of the new research focusing on Chinese tourism is designed to help the industry understand how to best serve potential clients. But these same studies offer journalists context for reporting on the Chinese tourist’s economic impact or environmental footprint – at home and abroad.


Environmental anxieties

Traditionally, economic growth has had a negative impact on the environment – growth means construction, movement and other things that require the burning of fossil fuels. The domestic Chinese tourism industry’s emissions roughly doubled between 2002 and 2010, from 111.5 metric tons to 208.4 metric tons annually, according to a 2016 paper, but remained at about 2.5 percent of total emissions as overall output increased. Another study found tourism-related CO2 emissions inside China growing at almost 13 percent a year – largely from airplanes, buses and other forms of transportation – yet the industry overall is growing faster than the emissions. 

The Chinese government actively encourages businesses to act sustainably, but offers “little guidance,” observes a 2016 paper. “The meaning of sustainability in the tourism sector is confusing and pro-business tourism development still plays a dominant role.”

Another 2016 paper looks at long-run and short-run correlations between tourism, economic growth and emissions.

The economics of tourism

As The Economist pointed out in 2014, the money Chinese citizens spend abroad influences China’s overall trade surplus. The value of Chinese exports is greater than its imports – that surplus is often a focus of concern in America’s Congress. But by this measure, Chinese tourist spending abroad is driving down the gap – with uncertain consequences for the global economy.

The spending, however, is slowed by onerous visa requirements on Chinese passport holders. They can visit 56 countries without applying for a visa. Compare that to Americans (155 countries) and Germans (158 countries), according to passportindex.org, a survey by the financial advisory firm Arton Capital. This is partly due to China’s own history of limiting visitors. A 2012 paper calculated that China lost $966 million in potential revenue due to restrictions ahead of the summer 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The tourism boom is motivating some Chinese firms to invest in foreign infrastructure to serve Chinese tourists. This forthcoming study looks at how those companies choose where and how to spend.

Back at home, China’s domestic tourism industry is associated with a reduction in income inequality, according to a 2016 paper in the Annals of Tourism Research. In part, that’s because some of China’s less-developed regions are becoming attractions for tourists from the wealthier (and more developed) east coast of the country.

Who are Chinese tourists and what do they want?

Many westerners can picture Chinese visitors touring en masse on giant buses. In 2011, a Chinese-speaking New Yorker staff writer accompanied a group on just such a tour of Europe. Though package tours may be cheaper, a 2016 study in the Journal of Travel Research found they offer Chinese tourists less overall satisfaction.

Other studies dispel notions of a homogeneous horde. In 2015, researchers in Ontario looked at Chinese communities in Canada, where Chinese-born residents (including from Hong Kong and Macau) make up the largest foreign-born contingent in the country (11 percent of the total). Whereas mainland China-born Canadians spend less on hotels when they vacation, they spend more than other Chinese Canadians on attending performances. Hong Kong-born Canadians like to spend money on hotels, fancy restaurants and spas. Canadian-born Chinese-Canadians, on the other hand, are not much different from other Canadians.

A 2016 paper looks at the diverse Chinese diaspora in North America and members’ distinct motivations for visiting their ancestral homeland.

These studies use demographic data to establish what different types of Chinese tourists look for in a holiday.

Coming to America

Chinese citizens are visiting the U.S. in record numbers. But what do they think of America? According to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey, half of Chinese have a favorable opinion of the U.S., but 44 percent harbor negative views. Moreover, 45 percent say the U.S. is a “major threat” to China’s interests. (A 2015 Pew study found 54 percent of Americans had a negative view of China.)

When they arrive in the U.S., Chinese tourists can be reluctant to try new foods, observes a 2016 study in the Journal of Business Research, largely out of concerns over food hygiene. Moreover, confusion about American table etiquette is associated with a decline in Chinese tourists’ openness to unfamiliar foods, the study finds. They are less concerned about communicating with the wait staff in a restaurant, but place a premium on authentic culinary experiences. The study offers several recommendations: “Local restaurateurs need to ensure that they keep the authentic preparation of their food, because Chinese-style American food [burgers à la Beijing] might actually push Chinese customers away. Restaurants should also ensure the safety of the food. Providing a safe and hygienic environment is crucial. Further, restaurateurs should train their employees to be aware of the appropriate table manners in the Chinese culture and try to cater to them if at all possible.”

Chinese tourists who choose not to visit the U.S. describe disquiet about the distance, security or visa application process, according to a survey described in Tourism Management in 2013. Respondents also often “indicated that they had some negative impressions of the country, which also deterred them from visiting.”

Another group that has received American media attention is the so-called “birth tourists.” The New York Times reported in 2015 that federal authorities had raided several California businesses that may have helped thousands of Chinese mothers give birth on American soil. (Any child born in the U.S. is eligible for American citizenship, and this practice is not exclusive to nationals of any one country). A 2016 law review article looks at birth tourism specifically among Asians and how it is framed in popular culture.

How Chinese tourists get their information 

As more Chinese tourists travel independent of tour groups, they look to Chinese-language internet resources for information. This 2016 paper, published in the Journal of Travel Research, looks at the motivations of independent Chinese bloggers who write about their trips. “Self-documentation and sharing” and the “hedonic enjoyment of blogging” are the strongest motivators, the authors found. They cite one typical blogger in his 30s who explained, “The original intention for blogging was not for fellow travelers’ reference. It was more for myself. When I recall this trip in the future, I would like to have some base. When I’m old, I will compile all my travel blogs into a book, and share it with my friends and posterity. They are my footprints in the world.”

Other resources:

  • Demographic and economic statistics are available from the China Data Center at the University of Michigan, the World Bank and the official National Bureau of Statistics of China. (Some observers have warned that official Chinese data are sometimes too good to be true. For example, this U.S. government paper found “serious deficiencies in the way the Chinese government gathers, measures, and presents its data.”)
  • Union Pay, a popular Chinese credit card, is increasingly accepted abroad.
  • A 2013 Congressional Research Service paper discusses concerns about Beijing manipulating its currency. By artificially decreasing the value of the yuan, as some American legislators have charged, China would make its goods more competitive in foreign markets.
  • Megan Epler Wood, director of the International Sustainable Tourism Initiative at Harvard University, authored the 2017 book Sustainable Tourism on a Finite Planet. It explores how the explosive growth of tourism is impacting the natural world and makes recommendations for the decades ahead.


Keywords: Ecotourism, visitors, travel, food and leisure, sustainability, globalization

    • Dec 03 / 2016
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      • Nov 30 / 2016
      • 0
      Budget, Drug Policy, Health Care, Personal Finance, Public Health

      Prescription opioid drugs: What they cost and who pays

      The issue: More people in the United States died from drug overdoses in 2014 than any other year in recorded history – and 61 percent of those deaths involved opioids, according to a 2016 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Opioids such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and fentanyl are generally prescribed to treat pain. Heroin is an illegal opioid.

      The country is in the midst of an overdose epidemic, driven largely by prescription and illicit opioids. The problem is especially troubling in Kentucky, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio and West Virginia — the five states with the highest rates of death due to overdose. In August 2016, news organizations nationwide focused on Huntington, West Virginia after 27 people there overdosed on opioids in less than four hours, occupying every ambulance in the city. The following month, the city of East Liverpool in Ohio posted on Facebook graphic photos of a couple who had apparently overdosed on opioids in a car while a small child sat in a back seat. City officials said they released the images, which went viral, to “convince another user to think twice about injecting this poison while having a child in their custody.”

      In 2016, President Obama proclaimed Sept. 18 through Sept. 24 as Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week.

      A study worth reading: “Payments For Opioids Shifted Substantially To Public And Private Insurers While Consumer Spending Declined, 1999–2012,” published in Health Affairs, 2016.

      Study summary: Chao Zhou, an economist at the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, and her colleagues wanted to know how much is spent on prescription opioids and who pays for them – individuals or their public or private insurers. The authors contend that knowing such information might help identify ways to prevent drug overdoses. They used data from 1999 to 2012 from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, a federal government resource, to examine trends in prescribing and expenditures and investigate the impact that changes in insurance coverage might have had over that time.

      Key takeaways:

      • Spending for prescription opioids more than tripled between 1999 and 2012 — from $2.3 billion to $7.4 billion.
      • In 1999, individuals paid out of pocket most of the cost of their opioid prescriptions. But their share of the cost dropped from 53 percent in 1999 to 18 percent in 2012, as insurance providers began covering the majority of the cost.
      • Medicare and Medicaid pay a significantly larger share of expenses for opioid pain relievers. In 1999, 9 percent of all of the money spent on prescription opioid drugs came from either Medicare or Medicaid. By 2012, that share had grown to 35 percent.
      • Medicare paid more for opioids than did Medicaid or private insurance. Medicare spent $328 per person annually, on average, for these drugs. Medicaid and private insurance spent an average of $139 and $209 per person annually, respectively.
      • The amount of opioids prescribed almost doubled from 2006 to 2012 while the amount of money spent on them during that period did not change much. The trend “suggests that there has been a shift toward less expensive drugs but not toward weaker ones.”

      Helpful resources:

      • The CDC offers a variety of information about prescription opioids and heroin, including side effects, risk factors and state-level data on overdose deaths.
      • The National Institute on Drug Abuse has an explainer on understanding drug use and addiction.
      • The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has created an interactive mapping tool that allows journalists to compare Medicare Part D opioid prescription claims in different areas of the country.

      More research on this topic:


      Keywords: health spending, pharmaceuticals, mental health, mental illness, insurance coverage, OxyContin, Vicodin, methadone

        • Nov 29 / 2016
        • 0
        (Dan Doane Jr, Wikimedia/Public Domain)
        Ads, Public Opinion, Campaign Media, Digital Democracy, Polarization, Social Media

        Knowledgeable conservatives more likely to back conspiracy theories

        Conservatives are more likely than liberals to endorse conspiracy theories. Many are highly knowledgeable about politics and have little trust in institutions, a new study finds.

        The issue: President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, goes one common conspiracy theory. Another: George W. Bush knew in advance about the 9/11 attacks and let them happen. Conspiracy theories can spread quickly in this era of social media, especially as people sort themselves into information silos, only sharing information with the like-minded. During the 2016 presidential election one candidate frequently leveled charges against his opponent with little evidence, sometimes framing them with the noncommittal phrase “people say.” He won.

        A 2009 paper defines conspiracy theories as “an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who attempt to conceal their role.” Other researchers add that conspiracies often allege the illegal usurpation of political or economic power.

        The authors of a 2014 paper found “over half of the American population consistently endorse some kind of conspiratorial narrative about a current political event or phenomenon.”

        They are also powerful distractions. Politicians responding to conspiracy theories must often turn their attention away from more pressing issues.

        Psychologists have described how conspiracy theories allow believers to explain complicated events and how they may address feelings of alienation. Because many conspiracy theories hinge on politics, some researchers have noted how they impugn competing ideologies and solidify political attitudes. Indeed, a 2012 paper showed party affiliation correlated with the endorsement of particular theories.

        But the authors of a new paper feel these explanations alone are not enough, and ask if political knowledge and trust play a role.

        An academic study worth reading: “Conspiracy Endorsements as Motivated Reasoning: The Moderating Roles of Political Knowledge and Trust,” published in the American Journal of Political Science, October 2016.

        Study summary: Joanne Miller, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota, and her team hypothesize that people endorse conspiracy theories to serve “both ideological and psychological needs.” They also expect that people who do are “both highly knowledgeable about politics and lacking in trust.”

        Miller and her team explain that people with deeper political knowledge are better equipped to make connections between abstract political ideas, that they are more likely to seek to protect their positions, and thus more likely to endorse “ideologically congruent” conspiracy theories – that is, theories that are consistent with their political positions.

        Trust mitigates the role of knowledge in this equation, the authors expect, because “trust in people and institutions makes it difficult for people to muster up the evidence necessary to substantiate conspiracies that put ideological rivals in a bad light while simultaneously maintaining an illusion of objectivity.”

        The authors ask over 2,200 Americans who self-identify as liberal or conservative to consider and weigh eight conspiracies: four designed to appeal to conservatives and four to liberals (for example, respectively, Obama was not born in the U.S. and the Bush Administration knew about 9/11 before it happened). The authors also code for political ideology on a scale of 1 to 7, and create a trust index based on how much respondents trust the federal government, law enforcement, media and public to do what is right. Then they test their hypotheses against another data set of 2,485 conservatives and liberals who answered similar questions for the 2012 American National Election Studies survey.


        • Conservatives are more likely to endorse ideologically congruent conspiracies than liberals.
        • Individuals with a high level of trust in institutions are less likely to endorse conspiracy theories.
        • Conservatives knowledgeable about politics are more likely to endorse ideologically congruent conspiracy theories. There is no evidence of a similar correlation among liberals.
        • Conservatives knowledgeable about politics who also have little trust in institutions are most associated with endorsement of ideologically consistent conspiracy theories: “Highly knowledgeable conservatives are more likely to engage in ideologically motivated endorsement, especially if they believe that the world is an untrustworthy place.”
        • Conservatives and liberals knowledgeable about politics are less likely than their unknowledgeable counterparts to endorse incongruent conspiracies – for example, a liberal is less likely to endorse the theory that President Obama was not born in the United States.
        • For liberals, greater knowledge about politics and greater trust in institutions both appear to decrease their tendency to endorse conspiracy theories.

        The authors acknowledge that context may have some bearing on their results. Because they carried out the survey during Barack Obama’s Democratic administration, conservatives may be more motivated by contemporary conspiracies about Obama and his government. Still, they conclude that conservatives are more likely, overall, to endorse conspiracies: “Conservative politicians and pundits can more readily rely on conspiracies as an effective means to activate their base than liberals. And to the extent that ideologically motivated endorsement is most evident among the least trusting of the knowledgeable conservatives, there is all the more incentive for conservative elites to stoke the fires of distrust.”

        Helpful resources:

        • A number of fact-checking websites respond to politicians’ claims. PolitiFact, run by the Tampa Bay Times, is one of the most established.
        • Fake news was a defining feature during the 2016 presidential campaign. This news article looks at a fake news operation run purely for profit in the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

        Other research:

        • A 2014 study of letters to the editor published in the New York Times between 1890 and 2010 found the target of various conspiracy theories more likely to be associated with the party in power. The authors write, “Sharing conspiracy theories provides a way for groups falling in the pecking order to revamp and recoup from losses.” The practice, they write, is a form of scapegoating that allows conspiracy theorists to channel their anger.
        • A 2016 study in Judgement and Decision Making examined if neoliberal conservatives are more “susceptible to bullshit.”
        • Journalist’s Resource has written several times about misinformation and fact-checking. Another piece looks at how misleading poll questions can perpetuate conspiracy theories.


        Keywords: Politics, political bias, polarization, post-truth, Facebook, fake news, spin, information operations

          • Nov 29 / 2016
          • 0
          (David Trilling)
          Economics, Environment, Pollution

          Air pollution drives down the stock market

          When New York is enveloped in pollution, the stock market loses value and sends a negative signal to global markets, a new paper finds.

          The issue: Air pollution is bad for our lungs, for children’s health and development, and for the global climate. Researchers also have found smog and dirty air associated with diminished work performance and poorer cognitive output in adults.

          Could this be impacting the world’s most advanced economies?

          An academic study worth reading: “The Effect of Air Pollution on Investor Behavior: Evidence from the S&P 500,” a working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, October 2016.

          Study summary: A team led by Anthony Heyes, an economist at the University of Ottawa, looks at how dirty air could affect the risk appetites of Manhattan-based traders and market-makers — unbeknownst to them — and depress the value of the stock market.

          The researchers analyze four types of data across 15 years (2000 to 2014): For equities, they look at returns from the S&P 500 index, a diversified portfolio of companies that often serves as a benchmark for the overall health of the American economy. For pollution, they use Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data on fine particulate matter (PM2.5) — airborne solids and liquids of less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. Most PM2.5 emanate from car exhaust and burning fossil fuels for heating and industry. PM2.5 are especially interesting to scientists because they are found indoors as well as outdoors. The authors use the Volatility Index (often known as the “fear gauge”) published by the Chicago Board Options Exchange to chart expected market movement over the next year. Finally, since weather has been associated with market movements, they use EPA weather data as a control.

          Heyes and his team also control for other pollutants, time of year and day of the week. They acknowledge that investors are widely dispersed around the globe, but see the “very strong concentration” of market-influencers in New York as indicative of air pollution’s effect. The authors claim to prove causality, not just correlation.


          • A one standard deviation increase in airborne PM2.5 levels causes an 11.9 percent decrease in that day’s S&P 500 returns (that is not a decrease in the absolute value of the index, but in how the market moved).
          • The PM2.5 effects are immediate.
          • The authors find a relationship between PM2.5 and risk tolerance, “that a one unit increase in PM2.5 concentration increases the value of VIX by 1.9 percent.”
          • The findings can be applied to workers in other occupations in other developed countries and suggest “the detrimental effect of pollution on workplace performance is even more widespread than previously believed.”
          • The findings are also an indicator of how pollution can undermine “the efficient operation of a modern economy. […] Variations in the quality of air in Manhattan systematically distort investment signals being sent out across the whole economy.”

          Helpful resources:

          The S&P 500 equity index — often known as just “the S&P” — is an index of 500 large companies listed in New York and is often seen as bellwether representation of the U.S. economy.

          The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) publishes information and data on fine particulate matter (PM2.5) as does the National Academy of Sciences.

          The Chicago Board Options Exchange calls its Volatility Index (VIX) the “world’s premier barometer of equity market volatility.”

          Other research:

          • PM2.5 has a strong impact on indoor worker productivity, found the authors of a 2016 paper in the American Economic Journal: “Particulate Pollution and the Productivity of Pear Packers.”
          • By testing baseball umpires, the authors of this 2016 working paper found cognition sharply decreased even when levels of PM2.5 and carbon monoxide (CO) were below EPA standards.
          • Traders in New York tend to sell stocks when the sky is cloudy at market open and the market is more volatile on cloudy days, the authors of this 2008 paper found.
          • Israeli high school students in areas with higher levels of PM2.5 and CO perform worse on standardized tests compared to peers in cleaner areas, according to this 2014 NBER working paper.
          • Chinese equity markets are negatively impacted for several days after a spike in airborne pollution, this 2016 paper in Applied Economics suggests.


          Keywords: Health, pollution, cognitive function, stock market, equities, fine particulate matter, global warming, climate change

            • Nov 23 / 2016
            • 0
            (University of Michigan)
            Education, Internet

            How social media may influence student loyalty to a university: New research

            A 2016 study examines how a university’s Facebook community influences students’ feelings about the school and how loyalty to a university brand might encourage students to support the institution in different ways.


            The issue: As funding for public universities falls and competition among higher education institutions grows, administrators nationwide are under greater pressure to recruit and retain students. Federal data suggest fewer students are going to college. In the United States, postsecondary enrollment dipped every year between 2010 and 2014 – from 21 million in 2010 to 20.2 million in 2014, according to a 2015 report from the National Center for Education Statistics.

            Colleges and universities are trying new things to market themselves to prospective students and their families. In recent years, they have increasingly relied on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat and Periscope to boost their visibility and interact with current students and high school students as well as college sports fans. Some of the outreach focuses on alumni, who often help with recruitment and fundraising.

            An academic study worth reading: “Role of Social Media Community in Strengthening Trust and Loyalty for a University,” published in Computers in Human Behavior, December 2016.

            Study summary: Four researchers from Eastern Mediterranean University in North Cyprus sought to better understand how a university’s Facebook community influences students’ feelings about the school and how that, in turn, may impact students’ actions. The authors surveyed 206 students who were regular users of a Facebook page operated by a university in North Cyprus. Of the students surveyed, 40 percent said they had used the university’s Facebook page for one to two years. About 43 percent of students were between the ages of 21 to 25 and the vast majority were male undergraduates. A large number of survey respondents were students who were studying away from their home countries.

            The researchers measured students’ perceptions of the university’s Facebook community, their identification with the broader university community and their identification with the university’s brand. The authors also tried to gauge students’ loyalty to the school brand and determine whether there is a relationship between brand loyalty and students’ willingness to take certain actions, including recommending the university to other people and pursuing further studies at the university.

            Key findings:

            • The perceived strength of a university’s Facebook community is linked to how students identify with the broader university community.
            • There is a positive relationship between the perceived strength of the Facebook community and the likelihood that students identify with the university’s brand. “The reason that the strong Facebook community can result in strong identification with the brand is because of the role of identification with the university community,” the authors write.
            • There is a relationship between students’ loyalty to a school’s brand and their willingness to recommend the school to others, share good experiences with friends and participate in school activities.
            • Brand loyalty also seems to be connected to students’ desire to continue their studies at the same university, even in the face of academic difficulties.

            Helpful resources for journalists:

            • The National Center for Education Statistics tracks college enrollment nationwide.
            • The Institute of International Education tracks trends involving international students in the U.S.
            • Most colleges and universities have Facebook pages and/or Twitter accounts. To get a sense of how they use these platforms, compare the social media streams of large institutions such as Arizona State University to smaller ones such as Roxbury Community College in Massachusetts.
            • A 2016 white paper from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, a professional association of educational institutions, offers insights into the various ways schools, colleges and universities use social media.
            • A 2016 report from the Pew Research Center indicates Facebook is the most popular social media platform – 79 percent of internet users use it. Meanwhile, 36 percent of online adults aged 18 to 29 use Twitter.

            Related research:


            Keywords: communication, branding, student engagement, student outreach, fundraising, alumni relations


              • Nov 10 / 2016
              • 5
              Ads, Public Opinion, Reporting, Research, Writing

              Polling fundamentals and concepts: An overview for journalists

              The 2016 presidential election surprised many because Donald Trump’s win defied the vast majority of polls. In the aftermath, some are blaming journalists for rushing information out quickly without explaining basic polling caveats. Despite all the lavish attention, polls are only as valid as their design, execution and analysis.

              The best polls are produced by independent, nonpartisan polling organizations, with no vested interest in the outcome of the findings. These include organizations like Gallup and the Pew Research Center and as well as media groups such as CBS News/New York Times, ABC News/Washington Post and NBC News/Wall Street Journal. Many surveys are conducted by partisan actors — political consulting firms, industry groups and candidates. In some cases, the findings are biased by factors such as respondent selection and question wording. Partisan-based polls need to be carefully scrutinized and, when possible, reported in comparison with nonpartisan poll results.

              It’s important to remember that polls are a snapshot of opinion at a point in time. Despite 60 years of experience since Truman defied the polls and defeated Dewey in the 1948 presidential election, pollsters can still miss big: In the 2008 Democratic primary in New Hampshire, Barack Obama was pegged to win, but Hillary Clinton came out on top. A study in Public Opinion Quarterly found that “polling problems in New Hampshire in 2008 were not the exception, but the rule.” In a fluid political environment, it is risky to assume that polls can predict the distribution of opinion even a short time later.

              Here are some polling concepts that journalists and students should be familiar with:

              • In a public opinion poll, relatively few individuals — the sample — are interviewed to estimate the opinions of a larger population. The mathematical laws of probability dictate that if a sufficient number of individuals are chosen truly at random, their views will tend to be representative.
              • A key for any poll is the sample size: a general rule is that the larger the sample, the smaller the sampling error. A properly drawn sample of one thousand individuals has a sampling error of about plus or minus 3%, which means that the proportions of the various opinions expressed by the people in the sample are likely to be within plus or minus 3% of those of the whole population.
              • In all scientific polls, respondents are chosen at random. Surveys with self-selected respondents — for example, people interviewed on the street or who just happen to participate in a web-based survey — are intrinsically unscientific.
              • The form, wording and order of questions can significantly affect poll results. With some complex issues — the early debate over human embryonic stem cells, for example — pollsters have erroneously measured “nonopinions” or “nonattitudes,” as respondents had not thought through the issue and voiced an opinion only because a polling organization contacted them. Poll results in this case fluctuated wildly depending on the wording of the question.
              • Generic ballot questions test the mood of voters prior to the election. Rather than mentioning candidates’ names, they ask the respondent would vote for a Republican or Democrat if the election were held that day. While such questions can give a sense of where things stand overall, they miss how respondents feel about specific candidates and issues.
              • Poll questions can be asked face-to-face or by telephone, with automated calls, or by email or mail. The rise of mobile-only households has complicated polling efforts, as has the increasing reluctance of Americans to participate in telephone polls. Nevertheless, telephone polls have a better record of accuracy than Internet-based polls. Whatever the technique used, it is important to understand how a poll was conducted and to be careful about reporting any poll that seems to have employed a questionable methodology.
              • Social desirability bias occurs when respondents provide answers they think are socially acceptable rather than their true opinions. Such bias often occurs with questions on difficult issues such as abortion, race, sexual orientation and religion.
              • Beware of push polls, which are thinly disguised attempts by partisan organizations to influence voters’ opinions rather than measure them.
              • Some survey results that get reported are based on a “poll of polls,” where multiple polls are averaged together. Prominent sites that engage in this practice are FiveThirtyEight, Real Clear Politics and the Cook Political Report. There are, however, any number of methodological arguments over how to do this accurately and some statisticians have objections to mixing polls at all.
              • When reporting on public-opinion surveys, include information on how they were conducted — who was polled, when and how. Report the sample size, margin of error, the organizations that commissioned and executed the poll, and whether they have any ideological biases. Avoid polling jargon, and report the findings in as clear a language as possible.
              • Compare and contrast multiple polls when appropriate. If the same question was asked at two different points in time, what changed? If two simultaneously conducted polls give different results, find out why. Talk to unbiased polling professionals or scholars to provide insight. If you’re having trouble finding experts to put findings in perspective, exercise caution.
              • When polls appear in news stories, they’re typically emphasize the “horse race” aspects of politics. This focus can obscure poll findings that are of equal or greater significance, such as how voters feel about the issues and how their candidate preferences are affected by the issues.

              For those interested in a deeper dive into polling, Journalist’s Resource has a number of academic studies on measuring public opinion: “I’m Not Voting for Her: Polling Discrepancies and Female Candidates,” “Measuring Americans’ Concerns about Climate Change,” “Dynamic Public Opinion: Communication Effects over Time” and “Exit Polls: Better or Worse Since the 2000 Election?” are just a few of those available.


              This article is based on work by Thomas Patterson, Harvard’s Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press and research director of Journalist’s Resource; Charlotte Grimes, Knight Chair in Political Reporting at Syracuse University; and the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut.

              Keywords: polling, elections

                • Nov 07 / 2016
                • 1
                Criminal Justice, Public Health

                Background checks on ammunition, guns may drastically reduce deaths

                The issue: More than 92 people are killed by firearms in the United States every day, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Though that number is far above any other developed country, and guns are used in most U.S. murders, America’s polarized political establishment has struggled to devise a solution.

                In 1993, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (known often as the “Brady Law”) began requiring gun buyers to undergo a federal background check. But there are loopholes. Specifically, people can sell weapons without a license or a background check at gun shows (“the gun-show loophole”). Some states have issued separate laws intended to close those loopholes. Others have passed legislation to further deregulate gun access, such as so-called “right-to-carry” or “open carry” laws, which allow people to arm themselves in public places, including on college campuses.

                A new study argues that three firearm regulations in the spirit of the Brady Law, if applied nationwide, could cut gun deaths in the U.S. by over 98 percent without any type of ban.

                An academic study worth reading: “Firearm Legislation and Firearm Mortality in the USA: A Cross-Sectional, State-Level Study,” published in The Lancet, 2016.

                Study summary: The authors, led by Bindu Kalesan of Boston University, built a cross-sectional, state-level study looking at a number of variables, including 25 state gun laws passed in 2009 (which “either controlled firearms or were permissive”) and CDC data on state firearm-related deaths for the years 2008 to 2010. The authors controlled for firearm ownership and other mortality data, including non-gun-related murders, to project the effectiveness of these 25 laws at a federal level.


                • Of the 25 laws passed in 2009, the authors found nine associated with reduced gun deaths, nine with increased gun deaths and seven inconclusive.
                • The three laws most associated with reduced gun deaths required universal background checks to purchase a gun, background checks to purchase ammunition and that firearms carry identification — either microstamping (marking the gun with a laser) or ballistic fingerprinting (where every individual gun leaves a unique mark on a bullet).
                • If these three laws were implemented nationwide, the authors predict declines in firearm-related deaths from the 2009 baseline of 10.35 per 100,000 people:
                  • to 4.46 per 100,000, a 57 percent decline, with universal background checks.
                  • to 1.99 per 100,000, down 81 percent, with ammunition background checks.
                  • to 1.81 per 100,000, an 83 percent reduction, with firearm identification requirements.
                  • to 0.16 per 100,000, with all three requirements (that is a 98.45 percent decline, though the authors do not calculate this).
                • Hawaii had the lowest rate of firearm-related deaths (3.31 per 100,000) and Alaska the highest (20.3 per 100,000) in the U.S.
                • So-called stand-your-ground laws — which permit individuals to respond to perceived threats with deadly force, without attempting to retreat — are associated with a “significant increase in firearm mortality.”

                N.B. Several scholars have challenged (here and here) some of the key findings in this study. In a response published in The Lancet, the authors stand by their work.

                Helpful resources:

                The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) explains how the Brady Law works, including its temporary and permanent provisions. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) describes how its instant background checks work.

                The American gun debate is often heated, with advocates on both sides offering passionate opinions and competing data. The Gun Violence Archive is a non-profit organization that grew out of a project at Slate.com. It collates gun-violence statistics and claims to take no position on the issue. The National Rifle Association (NRA) is one of the most visible lobbies for gun ownership.

                This 2016 Washington Post story looks at the number of firearm-related deaths in Chicago, one of America’s most violent cities, and how those guns are brought to the city from other states.

                Other research:

                This 2015 study in the Annual Review of Public Health looks at efforts to keep guns out of the hands of “high-risk individuals” between 1999 and 2014 and specifically analyzes the so-called “gun-show loophole” in the Brady Law.

                This 2015 paper in BMJ Injury Prevention assesses gun ownership rates across the 50 states.

                This 2013 study in JAMA Internal Medicine found a correlation between state firearm legislation and lower rates of gun deaths.

                This 2011 study found that murders committed with guns happen 20 times more often in America than in other developed countries.

                Journalist’s Resource has written about research on right-to-carry laws, background checks and mental illness, the online gun market, shooting sprees, carrying weapons on campus and analyses of existing gun-control legislation.


                Keywords: gun deaths, firearms, violence, murder, gun control

                  • Nov 06 / 2016
                  • 0
                  Congress, Culture, Elections, Municipal, Race

                  The role of race in voter turnout

                  As the 2016 presidential election nears, both Republicans and Democrats have courted minority voters – a group that is growing in numbers and electoral clout. Black and Hispanic people make up the country’s two largest minority voting blocs and, as such, are especially important in close races. Various news agencies and other political observers have explored the question of whether a Republican can win the White House without winning over voters of color, who generally, according to a 2012 Gallup poll, identify as Democrats or independents.

                  Over the years, political scientists have studied the voting habits and behaviors of racial and ethnic minorities. One area of focus is voter turnout. While the minority population has increased – the Hispanic population alone grew more than 50 percent from 2000 to 2014 — voter turnout among minority groups does not seem to be keeping up. It has long lagged behind that of white voters. In 2014, for example, the voting rate for non-Hispanic white adults was 45.8 percent while the rate was 39.7 percent for black adults and 27 percent for Hispanics, a report from the U.S. Census Bureau shows. A decade previously, voting rates for those groups were 48.8 percent, 42 percent and 30.8 percent, respectively.

                  So, as political parties work to attract diverse voters, what factors influence whether they will show up at the polls on Election Day? Are minority populations more likely to vote if a candidate on the ballot is of the same race or ethnicity? Researcher Bernard L. Fraga of Indiana University looked at these issues in a 2015 study published in the American Journal of Political Science. For the study,“Candidates or Districts? Reevaluating the Role of Race in Voter Turnout,” Fraga took data collected from a nationwide voter registration database and combined it with data on congressional candidates. He analyzed congressional general and primary elections from 2006, 2008 and 2010 to gauge turnout among demographic groups.

                  Key findings from his study include:

                  • Having a political candidate of the same race or ethnicity on the ballot does not, by itself, prompt a larger voter turnout among minority groups.
                  • Turnout is often greater for minority voters when they live in a congressional district where their racial or ethnic group represents the majority of the citizen voting-age population (CVAP). For black and Hispanic voters specifically, turnouts are higher when each group makes up a larger portion of the electorate – regardless of the race of the candidates listed on the ballot.
                  • When no black congressional candidate is on the ballot, the general-election turnout for black voters is, on average, 40 percent in a district where black people make up 10 percent of the citizen voting-age population. The turnout is considerably higher — an average of 49.3 percent  — in a district where black people are 50 percent of the voting-age population.
                  • In the absence of a Hispanic candidate, the general-election turnout for Hispanic voters is 6.4 percentage points higher in a voting district where Hispanic people make up 40 percent of the voting-age population compared to a district where they comprise 10 percent of the voting-age population.

                  This study builds upon previous research to show that the racial and ethnic makeup of an electorate is linked to minority-voter turnout. The author recommends further research to explore the cause of the trend. He suggests that these results be considered when evaluating plans to change voting districts. “Considering [voter] participation as well as demographic representation calls for a new metric to judge what is fair when crafting district boundaries,” Fraga states. He also notes that as the nation’s minority populations grow, voting districts will become more diverse, which could result in future changes in political participation.

                  Related research: A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Political Science looks at how preregistration, or the registration of youth before they reach voting age, influences voter turnout. A 2015 study from the University of South Carolina suggests that the Democratic Party and civil-rights organizations can play an important role in mobilizing black voters if they strengthen their organizational features. A 2009 study by Harvard University offers insights about voter participation in presidential primaries and caucuses.


                  Keywords: black voters, Latino voters, Hispanic voters, elections, campaigns, race, voter ID, voter turnout, voter participation

                    • Nov 05 / 2016
                    • 3
                    (David Trilling)
                    Culture, Internet, Social Media

                    Smartphone users trust strangers less: New research

                    The Issue: Need directions? Or a restaurant recommendation? These days, you’d probably seek help on your smartphone — a handy know-it-all device that can spit out answers to almost anything anywhere at any time. But a mere ten years ago, you may have asked someone — a neighbor, a stranger — for help. A new paper looks at the unseen social costs of this change in how we obtain information and interact with others.

                    An academic study worth reading: “The Social Costs of Ubiquitous Information: Consuming
                    Information on Mobile Phones Is Associated with Lower Trust,”
                    published in PLoS ONE, 2016.

                    Study summary: Psychologists Kostadin Kushlev of the University of Virginia and Jason Proulx of the University of British Columbia investigate if using smartphones is associated with declining trust in others, what they call “the social lubricant of society.” The authors theorize that “by changing where and what information people have access to, ubiquitous computing may decrease people’s interdependence with other members of society — especially those we normally encounter only outside of the sphere of close relationships.” For example, are smartphone users less inclined to ask people for advice or information — such as directions or restaurant recommendations — when they could turn to Google?

                    The authors used a nationally representative sample of 2,187 Americans who answered questions on how often they rely on mobile phones and other sources of information, and how much they trust other groups, including family, neighbors, foreigners and strangers. With these data points, controlling for demographic and geographic variables, they were able to “explore the relationship between mobile information and trust.” They also assessed whether this relationship depends on social bonds. For example, are family members more trustworthy than strangers?


                    • The more someone uses a smartphone for information, the less likely she is to trust “neighbors, strangers, and people from other religions or nationalities.”
                    • Reliance on smartphones had no correlation with how much people trust those from their inner circle, such as family members.
                    • Demographic factors do not explain these findings.
                    • The authors interpret the findings: “We theorized that mobile information erodes trust in strangers by interfering with casual opportunities to talk with strangers and by obviating the need to rely on others.”
                    • It is possible that the correlation could be understood in the reverse: That “people who trust others less might be more likely to use their mobile phones for information.”

                    Helpful resources:

                    • The International Data Corporation, a market-research firm, publishes data on global smartphone sales and other IT-related topics.
                    • The Economist’s Technology Quarterly offers insightful angles on the technology beat.
                    • Christopher Soghoian at the American Civil Liberties Union is a widely cited technology researcher and privacy advocate.
                    • The Pew Research Center has a page dedicated to internet, science and technology research.

                    Other research:

                    • This 2016 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “The Spreading of Misinformation Online,” charts the “massive diffusion of unverified rumors” online.
                    • This 2016 study, also in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, finds lower mortality risks for people with strong online and offline social networks.
                    • This 2011 paper in Science shows that between the 1980s and mid-2000s, Americans’ consumption of information jumped fivefold.
                    • Journalist’s Resource has profiled papers on the rise of mobile news platforms and Americans’ declining trust in both others and institutions.


                    Keywords: Smartphones, Google, asking questions, strangers, trust