By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
On June 4, Lauren’s Kids, released the results of an Internet poll it commissioned that found more than one-third of female respondents and one-fifth of male respondents had admitted to being sexually abused as children.
The survey’s results came in just as legislators reconvened for a special session to decide the 2015-2016 budget, which included a $3.8 million grant for the Aventura-based charity that specializes in child sex abuse prevention education.
Founded by Lauren Book, the daughter of prominent Tallahassee lobbyist Ronald Book, Lauren’s Kids got the funding, even escaping Gov. Rick Scott’s dreaded veto axe. But the trustworthiness of the online survey – a method national polling experts warn often results in unreliable, inaccurate public opinion data – can’t be verified.
Sachs Media Group, the Tallahassee public relations firm that was paid an undisclosed sum by Lauren’s Kids to conduct the poll, declined to provide detailed information about how individuals were selected to participate in the invitation-only survey. A Sachs senior executive also would not say how many people received invitations, and cited privacy considerations in declining to provide a list of the 1,033 participating Florida adults and their responses.
“We use industry standard balancing and targeting techniques to ensure randomness [of the participants],” said Karen Cyphers, Sachs Media Vice-President for Research and Policy. “The survey was fully online, no person-to-person interviews were conducted. Of those who clicked on the initial invitation to participate, the completion rate was just over 75 percent.”
Cyphers did provide FloridaBulldog.org with the list of poll questions that led to some of the alarming conclusions in the Lauren’s Kids survey.
For instance, the first question asked, “Were you sexually abused prior to age 18?” According to the document provided by Cyphers, 21 percent responded “yes.”
The participants who answered “no,” “not sure,” or “don’t want to say” were then shown a list of acts that constitute child sexual abuse that included being forced to expose themselves to grown-ups and being forced to watch adults have sex, Cyphers explained.
They were then asked, “After seeing a list of what constitutes child sexual abuse, were you sexually abused prior to age 18?” Nine percent of those who had answered “no,” “not sure,” or “don’t want to say” changed their answer to “yes,” according to the poll questions document.
QUESTIONS ABOUT SURVEY ACCURACY
Russell Renka, a retired political science professor at Southeastern Missouri University who wrote a 2010 research paper on what makes a good and bad poll, told FloridaBulldog.org the Lauren’s Kids survey is an advocacy poll being used to promote a specific viewpoint, which raises questions about accuracy.
Renka said professional pollsters, like the Pew Research Center, regularly publish backup data with survey results so that observers can independently evaluate the information. He noted Lauren’s Kids has only posted on its website selected highlights of the poll instead of the entire survey with the full set of questions and a full explanation of the methodology.
“You are counting on them to assure that the results are accurate,” Renka said. “That is a slippery slope.”
Click here to see the Research Methodology sheet provided by Sachs Media and its unit, Breakthrough Research, for the Lauren’s Kids survey.
Heather Gray, executive director of Lauren’s Kids, defended the nonprofit’s poll, saying Internet surveys have overtaken telephone methods in reaching a diverse, representative sample of respondents while producing reliably comparable results.
“Internet surveys reduce interviewer bias, enabling respondents to share personal or undesirable opinions without fear of judgment by another person,” Gray said. “This is important, particularly for a topic as sensitive as this one.”
However, even some of the nation’s most respected numbers crunchers caution about the use of Internet-based surveys.
In an early June post on his blog FiveThirtyEight, stats wunderkind Nate Silver said web polls are a big part of gauging public opinion, but that some pollsters are abandoning scientific principles when conducting them.
“It’s fundamentally challenging to ‘ping’ a random voter on the Internet in the same way that you might by giving her an unsolicited call on her phone,” Silver writes. “Many pollsters that do Internet surveys eschew the concept of the random sample, instead recruiting panels that they claim are representative of the population.”
Silver points out that online surveys grossly miscalculated the results in last year’s mid-term elections, Israel’s general election in March, and the Parliament elections in the United Kingdom last month.
“The foundation of opinion research has historically been the ability to draw a random sample of the population,” Silver writes. “That’s become much harder to do.”
Cliff Zukin, a former president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, wrote in the June 20 New York Times Sunday Review that there are major problems with Internet polls.
PROBLEMS WITH INTERNET POLLS
“First is what pollsters call ‘coverage error,’” Zukin wrote. “Not everybody is reachable online.”
A professor at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics and Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, Zukin asserts that statisticians have not figured out how to draw a representative sample of Internet users.
“Almost all online election polling is done with nonprobability samples,” Zukin opines. “These are largely unproven methodologically…It is impossible to calculate a margin of error on such surveys.”
Also problematic are the conflicting interests involved when a company that conducts the survey, in this case Sachs Media, is paid to do so by another company with an interest in the outcome.
Cyphers insisted Sach’s Internet polls are scientifically sound. For the Lauren’s Kids poll, she said invitations were randomly sent to people who were identified as living in Florida. Those who responded that they resided out-of-state were dropped from the results.
Between 2011 and 2013, Lauren’s Kids paid Sachs a total of $1.6 million for producing webinars, program materials such as brochures, palm cards and a mobile app, and a 30-minute TV program that was aired on network affiliate television stations throughout Florida, among other media services.
The poll results came out at a crucial time for Lauren’s Kids, which has received nearly $7 million in state appropriations in previous years used to fund the non-profit’s programs that train kids, teachers, and child caretakers at the Pre-K to third grade level to recognize the signs of sexual abuse and report it to authorities.
With the $3.8 million Lauren’s Kids will receive this year, it plans to expand its curriculum at the fourth grade to high school level. During the teleconference with reporters on June 4, Lauren Book, who was sexually abused when she was a teen, said the Internet poll proved the reasons why her programs must continue.
“Clearly sexual abuse can happen in any family,” Book said, adding the poll “shines a light on how much work we have to do to report sexual abuse and to recognize the signs of sexual abuse.”
The appropriation for Lauren’s Kids was tucked in a $23.8 million pot for “school and instructional enhancements” that emerged unscathed when the governor finalized the budget earlier this week. Scott obliterated funding for 24 other special interest projects on the list, including $100,000 for youth summer job programs and $30,000 for a financial literacy pilot program in Broward County.
Gray said Lauren’s Kids was not given preferential treatment.
Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, who sits on the appropriations committee, sponsored funding for Lauren’s Kids. Fresen did not respond to a request for comment, but Gray said he was required to submit the non-profit’s request before the entire committee for evaluation.
Gray said Lauren’s Kids was also vetted before the state senate appropriations committee.
“Chairman Don Gaetz [a Republican] and Vice Chairman Bill Montford [a Democrat] sent a joint letter to all organizations in the state budget who received funding in fiscal year 2014-15 and asked them to submit information for evaluation for fiscal year 2015-16,” Gray said. “We complied with the request and are pleased to have received bipartisan support from the committee upon completion of the submission and evaluation process.”