The Pew Charitable Trusts has long supported initiatives that seek to inform the public on the critical issues of the day and help people understand themselves and one another. In 2004, it brought these disparate efforts under one entity to create the Pew Research Center. Over nearly two decades, the Center has become a respected, nonpartisan, and nonadvocacy provider of research and analysis on key trends affecting society. As the Center looks to its 20th anniversary, Trust spoke with its president, Michael Dimock.
How does the Center decide what it studies?
That is the number one question we get asked! Our work focuses on three key themes. The first is trust, facts, and democracy. We aim to provide information about the challenges facing democracies and the ways that people become informed and engaged members of a democratic society. A second theme is science, technology, and society. Technology is changing nearly every aspect of our lives, from how we meet our partners, to how we work or go to school, to how we form community. For some, it has even changed how we worship. We’re bringing the voice of the public into conversations that otherwise are driven by companies and government. Our third area of work focuses on tolerance, identity, and diversity. This research looks at how the country is becoming more diverse and explores the forces that increase divides in our racial, ethnic, social, and religious identities.
So, beyond the surveys and other research the Center pursues, there is a broader unifying purpose to the work?
Yes. It is too easy to form caricatures of each other and to emphasize the differences in our society over the commonalities. We do deep studies on different segments of society, showing the range of diversity within populations and opening ways for different types of communication and contact. From its earliest days, the Center has had this mission of connecting with people and helping them see themselves in the data, aiming to enrich understanding and civic debates. We love our work to be an entry point for people to talk with each other. Facts are vital to grounding civil conversations about religion, politics, and other important issues—especially where we disagree.
Does that strengthen democracy and is that part of the purpose of the work?
The Center’s work is designed to try to create a better understanding of who we are as a society. Our job is to ask people what matters to them and get that information out there. Where do we share common views and values? Where do we differ? What are our priorities? Political, civic, and business leaders use our research as a source of reliable information on what their constituents think. Public opinion research, be it surveys or other kinds of analysis, presents a rich, nuanced perspective on people’s views and values.
How has survey research changed over the two decades of the Center’s existence?
The core of our approach is “random sampling”—to give everyone in the population an equal voice about the issues of the day. When I started at Pew, the best way to get a random sample was phone calls, but that has gotten harder as people screen their calls. The U.S. Postal Service has the most reliable way to understand where people are living. We use the mail to recruit people to participate in our American Trends Panel and invite them to answer questions online. The 12,000-person panel is a true cross section of the nation.
Conducting international surveys is a bit more challenging. We still do random samples, but our approach varies depending on a country’s technology, society, and infrastructure. In some places, we still have people knock on doors and sit down in people’s living rooms to ask them questions.
The Center conducts surveys and lots of research, but it never takes a stand on an issue or offers recommendations. Why?
Public opinion research means getting inside people’s heads, and it is easy to tweak questions and methods to get findings that support a position. Keeping an assiduously protected distance from advocacy is essential to the credibility of what we do. We regularly hear from our audiences—be they political leaders, journalists, or members of the public—that they trust us because we do not have a dog in the fight.
How else do you maintain credibility, especially in polarizing times like these?
We do not take stands on issues. We do not have clients. We are transparent about our methods. We make all our work available free of charge to everyone. We do not judge what our survey respondents tell us—people entrust us with their views, and we aim to report back with as much rigor and clarity as we can.
One of the key things that sets us apart is our support from The Pew Charitable Trusts. The Pew board has been remarkable in its long-term commitment to the Center. And it has delegated to us to employ our expertise to ask the right questions, employ gold standard methods, and use our skills for the greatest good. That funding has also allowed us to engage in nuanced research that may not drive headlines or go viral. And it is our organizational culture to be careful, meticulous, and transparent about what we do and how we do it. Over the years, we have gained the trust of journalists, leaders, philanthropists, and the public, and we guard that reputation carefully.
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