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FOR ALL OF you decent folks out there, I have some advice: Get out of town. Quick.

Pack the bags, gas up the station wagon, collect the kids and, if there's still room, take the dog.

Although you may not realize it, we've got a problem in these parts.

The problem is the people.

You are surrounded by folks who, to put it kindly, are not who you think they are.

Illicit-drug users. Bigots. Spouse-leavers. Drunken drivers. Cultural lowlifes.

We knew they were out there. But we figured they were the minority. The small minority.

Most folks in the community, we reassure ourselves, are decent people.

Then we see the results of the recent write-in polls of the Metro Community News, a local weekly newspaper.

Do you use illicit drugs? Yes, 72 percent.

Do you drink and drive? Yes, 69 percent.

Are you racially biased? Yes, 60 percent.

Would you change mates if you could? Yes, 72 percent.

Would you miss the Philharmonic? No, 59 percent.

As we said, our neighbors are not who we think they are.

Then again, maybe this doesn't reflect the community as a whole. Maybe these readers are the sort of people who, in other eras, rode with Attila or cast their lots with Capone.

Actually, there's no reason for concern. You can unpack the car and stop debating whether to leave the dog behind.

The Metro Community News poll doesn't prove that nearly three-quarters of us use illicit drugs or would toss our spouse out with the trash.

All it proves is how ridiculous these kinds of polls are. And how they can backfire.

The paper, to its credit, admitted as much in a face-saving editorial, saying the polls were unscientific and "purely for reader interest."

Of course, we're not talking just about the Metro Community News. This stuff is everywhere. Two local TV news programs do something similar with viewer phone-in polls, as do scores of other local stations nationally. Even the respected Cable News Network stoops to viewer polls.

At best, it's trivial. At worst, it's misleading people and blurs the line between news and entertainment.

An amateur pollster is like someone who looks at a house and decides carpentry is easy. He goes into business and on his first job builds a garage with the door on the roof and straw on the floor. As the local weekly found out, the results can make you look pretty bad.

Legitimate pollsters do random surveys that take demographics and population densities into account. They ask neutral questions, offer a range of possible answers and get at least 400 replies -- and even then admit to a 5 percent margin of error.

A legitimate poll, said Dr. Gerald Goldhaber of Goldhaber Research Associates, "gives everyone an equal opportunity to be selected at random."

"With the polls where the people decide themselves to call or write in, you get the extremists who feel strongly about the question."

Beyond that, said pollster Barry
Zeplowicz, TV or newspaper polls are skewed from the start.

"It's limited to viewers of Channel 2, or readers of a particular newspaper," he said. "It doesn't reflect the population at large."

So why do a poll that isn't valid? What's the point of pointlessness?

To promote reader or viewer participation and interest. To get people talking. To tie in with a special program or series.

How low can it go? In St. Louis last year, a TV news station asked whether a mother who killed her infant daughter should be executed.

Still, there's an aura of authenticity about any poll conducted by the news media. The very nature of the business lends these polls a legitimacy they don't deserve.

Beyond that, they blur the already fuzzy line separating news, sensationalism, dramatization and newslike advertisements.

"People aren't trained to know whether a poll is scientific or not," said Goldhaber. "The public should be informed by the news media, not misinformed."

And now, the meaningless poll to end all polls:

The next time I see a quickie poll, I will:

a) change the channel or turn the page

b) mutter something about how idiotic these things are

c) run screaming from the room

d) all of the above.

And please, don't phone in your answer, or mail it, or even write it down. Just keep it to yourself.

With this sort of poll, it's better that way.

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