Winter 1988 // Volume 26 // Number 4 // Research in Brief // 4RIB1

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Using Popular Publications for Collecting Data1


Glenn D. Israel
Evaluation Specialist
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
University of Florida-Gainesville

The lifeblood of Extension is meeting the needs of its clientele. Obtaining data about needs of people, behaviors they practice, and impacts of programs can be costly, thereby reducing resources for educational activities. With the current climate of fiscal constraint, Extension must seek cost-effective means of gathering information. The question is: Can mass media help achieve this objective?

Mass media have helped diffuse Extension's educational information to the public in the past. The media might be just as willing to help assess needs of the community and gather data about the impact of programs.2 There's another advantage to using the mass media to collect information - if mass media help with a survey, they're likely to give good coverage to the findings.3 About 72% of in-house polls appear on the front page of the paper.

Why aren't mass media more widely used to collect information? Some question whether the sample represents the population. For example, respondents from convenience samples were found to be similar to the nonrespondents in 44 of 60 (73%) instances of data gatherings by newspapers.4 Clearly, the evidence concerning the validity of data from mass media sources is mixed.

This Florida study compared the similarity of data that were collected using mail surveys with data from a local newspaper and a popular farm magazine to assess the utility of mass media as an effective method of obtaining data.

Newspaper Distribution vs Mailed Surveys

In a rural county in northwestern Florida, a mail questionnaire was used to assess interest in selected areas of agriculture, natural resources, home horticulture, marine biology, and home economics. Ten percent of the 800 subscribers to the local newspaper were selected for the mail sample, with 81% responding. An identical questionnaire inserted in 2,500 newspapers yielded 268 usable responses (11%).

The data support the view that no difference exists between a sample of newspaper subscribers who responded to a mail questionnaire and respondents to the same questionnaire placed in a local newspaper. No difference was found between responses and characteristics of respondents to the mail survey and those responding to the newspaper survey, with one exception. A larger percentage of the newspaper respondents reported living in apartments than did the mail survey respondents. No differences were found for sex, race, household size, presence of children between the ages of 8 and 18 who live at home, town of residence, residential ownership, or use of Cooperative Extension. The one difference between mail respondents and newspaper respondents had no apparent effect on the interest of respondents for programs in various substantive areas.

Magazine Distribution vs Mailed Surveys

A survey to assess production and management practices of beef producers in nine counties in south central Florida, which was designed to provide data for evaluating the Extension program, was selected for testing the utility of magazines as a source of data. A mail questionnaire was prepared and mailed to a sample of 343 producers. A total of 189 responded (55.1%). After the mail survey was completed, a questionnaire was placed in an issue of a livestock magazine, with about 7,000 subscribers. Only 13 beef producers in the nine-county area responded. Clearly, this type of publication doesn't appear appropriate for collecting evaluation data about beef management production practices.


On the basis of this study, it appears that a popular magazine isn't a medium to collect information about producers' practices or behavior representing that population. However, collecting data about people's interests using a local newspaper appears to hold much promise, at least for rural areas. No significant difference existed between a sample of mail respondents and newspaper respondents on all but one of the items on a questionnaire. A local newspaper may be a useful tool to gather information for planning. The technique can also be adapted to collecting information to evaluate the impact of a program.


1. Abstracted from the paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Evaluation Association, Kansas City, Missouri, October 1986 by C. L. Taylor and others.

2. M. McCombs, D. L. Shaw, and D. Grey, Handbook of Reporting Methods (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1976), p. 36.

3. M. B. Salwen, "The Reporting of Public Opinion Polls During Presidential Years, 1968-1984," Journalism Quarterly , LXII (No. 2, 1985), 272-77.

4. R. G. Hicks and M. P. Dunne, "Do-It-Yourself Polling: A Case Study and Critique," Newspaper Research Journal, I (No. 2, 1980), 46-52.