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Karlyn H. Keene is the managing editor of Public Opinion magazine, a journal which she says tries to "make sense of the enormous amounts of public opinion data we get all the time."
As a Visiting Fellow this semester at the Kennedy School's Institute of Politics, Keene will try to make sense of public opinion to those enrolled in her study group, "Polls: The Legacy of George Gallup."
Although the magazine staff deals with polling data, she says: "We're not an adoring crowd of survey researchers. We have some reservations about the public opinion industry and the way polls are used."
Keene says that gathering survey information is valuable, but it is often misinterpreted or misused.
Moreover, Keene is particularly concerned about "the centrality of the role of political pollsters in campaigns and governance. Pollsters occasionally misread the public sentiment, she says, and can unintentionally give poor advice to politicians by either assuming that poll results are completely accurate or misunderstanding the data.
Keene notes, for example, that Ronald Reagan's pollsters should have predicted the public outrage that resulted from his proposal to cut back Social Security benefits.
The media often misuses polling data, Keene says, because journalists often want quick, unambiguous answers and so report on data before it is fully understood.
"I think the media are acting incredibly arrogantly in their use of exit polls to aid them in their projections," she says.
Although the major television network employ experts that can predict results without resorting to exit polls, they have defended their use of such data partly because they see the criticism as calling into question their ability to report the news responsibly, she says.
Keene disagrees with criticism that, especially during the heavily reporting of public opinion during election years, poll results shape public opinion as much as they reflect it.
"My gut feeling is that particularly in an election year, the American public becomes pretty tired of public opinion data early on and don't pay them much attention," she says.
Keene first became interested in politics at the University of Wisconsin, where she demonstrated against the war in Vietnam. "It was very easy to get caught up to the politics of the era," she says.
After graduation, Keene got a job with conservative Senator James I. Buckley (R.NY), first as his receptionist and eventually as his legislative assistant. Working with Buckley, too reinforced her growing conservatism. "He is incredible articulate and I began to listen to the things he used to say."
After Buckley was defeated for re-election in 1976, Keene went to work for a Washington public relations firm, where she wrote radio address for public officials, including the pre-presidential Ronald Reagan.
In addition, the study group, Keene will conduct research on the public's estimation of the level of "opportunity" in the United States, using, data from a number of surveys.
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