Monday, February 27, 2006

No Journal-Sentinel Follow-up on UW Survey

I posted below about the additional findings submitted to the Journal-Sentinel by Madison-based PR firm Wood Communications Group regarding the group's public opinion survey on the University of Wisconsin System.

The front-page headline in the JS on Friday, which I wrote about here, was "Survey Scalds UW System." As it turns out, parts of the survey actually gave the UW System a great big kiss, but those parts were left out of the original story because Wood Communications Group left them out of its multiple presentations to UW officials, business leaders, and state politicians since the survey was completed last fall.

The JS mentioned the additional findings in its education-based blog, "School Zone," on Friday, but there has yet to be an actual article in the paper on the pro-UW results of the survey. (I don't subscribe to the print version of the JS; this assessment is based on a fairly close search of the online version of the paper over the last few days. Please correct me in the comments if my assessment is wrong.)

If the originally-released negative findings were important enough for a front-page story, why don't later-released positive findings even warrant an article of any kind in the print version of the paper?

This is troubling for a few reasons.

One, I imagine the blog "School Zone" doesn't get nearly the readership that the front-page of the paper (and website) receives.

Two, the new findings largely contradict the headline of the original JS article--"Survey Scalds UW System." One was that 80% of respondents think the UW System is doing an excellent job of providing a good education.

Three, and perhaps most important, the fact Wood Communications Group chose not to release the positive findings when meeting with UW officials, business leaders, and state politicians more than suggests ulterior motives with the survey--which the PR firm paid for on its own dime and conducted internally. To date the group still hasn't released the full report, claiming instead that the complete findings are its "proprietary data and we may choose to use it for other purposes.”

The wording of the questions used in the survey is probably most important, but the geographic disbursement of the respondents is key, too. Wood Communications Group was pretty clearly trying to net a big client with this survey, which largely taints any results released by the report unless there's full disclosure of the survey, its findings, and its methodology.

Nevertheless, it seems to me the biggest newspaper in the state has an obligation to print a follow-up article that points out the positive findings and the fact Wood Communications Group has been less than forthright with UW officials, business leaders, state politicians, and ultimately the public about the survey as a whole.

UPDATE: I just had a thought about the refusal by Wood Communications Group to release the full report because it's the group's "proprietary data" that it may choose to use at another time. How long is a public opinion survey completed in the fall of 2005 considered accurate? I imagine the reasonable time the PR firm has left to use the results to net future clients is running out relatively quickly.

This suggests to me the group is hesitant to release the full report because it's trying to cover its current investment--the attempted sale of its services to the UW System--not because it hopes to make a future investment out of the data. I have a feeling if we could see the full report, we'd find some interesting things regarding methodology and the phrasing of questions.

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