The Focus Group That Wasn't

AP reveals political science professor who cited a focus group as key source for his many interviews and essays never had one.

December 20, 2016
Iowa State
Steffen Schmidt

Iowa State University will not take any action involving a professor who has made misleading references to a focus group in frequent commentaries on U.S. politics.

Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at the university, is an oft-quoted source in local and state media outlets for his insight about issues related to the presidential election and politics more widely. In his comments to the media and opinion pieces, he has frequently referenced a focus group that informs his public comments.

An Associated Press report found that the term “focus group” in Schmidt's statements and writings refers not to a carefully designed academic study or a set of trusted expert sources but to anyone Schmidt might speak with about an issue he comments on.

The AP began looking into the focus group in November after Schmidt cited its findings in a critique of Hillary Clinton’s outreach to African-American, women and LGBTQ voters. After the AP filed an open records request for communications about the focus group, he acknowledged that there was no set panel.

Schmidt said in an email that he was not aware the term would be confusing and plans to stop using it in the future.

“My thought is that I don’t need to use any term in future, since the columns are my views,” he added.

Iowa State’s leadership drew a distinction between use of the term in formal research in scholarly venues and in opinions offered to the media or in news columns.

“His use of the term ‘focus group’ has been to provide context or support for opinion pieces he has shared with media,” said Wolfgang Kliemann, the university’s associate vice president for research and research integrity officer. “At no point has he presented this as formal research, nor does it meet the definition of research in a federal or academic sense. We have been clear about Dr. Schmidt’s intent.”

Marybeth Gasman is a University of Pennsylvania higher education professor and the editor of Academics Going Public: How to Write and Speak Beyond Academe. She said that argument put forth by Iowa State doesn’t hold water. The term “focus group” is not a confusing one, and it does not take on a different meaning depending on the context, she said.

“He knows exactly what it means,” Gasman said. “He also knows it lends an enormous amount of weight to his argument if he uses that term.”

A focus group usually involves a random collection of people -- not a group of an academic’s friends or colleagues and students he encounters, as Schmidt told the AP he saw the term. A professor's focus group research may also require the approval of a university institutional review board, a committee set up to approve and monitor research involving human subjects.

Richard Krueger, a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota who has authored several books on focus group interviewing, said Schmidt may have a novel approach to gathering insight on political issues, but it was not a focus group.

“It is unfortunate that the professor chooses to use a misleading word for the research, because this raises questions about the quality of the research,” he said. “Nevertheless, the professor might indeed have an astute group of prescient friends. But it should not be called a focus group.”


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