Nielsen Warns Census Change Would Hurt Media Business

Accuracy threatened by controversial citizenship question
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Nielsen is going public with its concern that if a controversial question about citizenship is added to the U.S. Census, the result would be an undercounting which would affect the media industry and other businesses.

“This is something that we think is near and dear to our heart at Nielsen,” said Christine Pierce, senior vice president of data science at Nielsen. "It’s so important. It’s really critical to our $90 billion advertising and media industry that they understand that what underpins all that commerce and all of those trades is this data and it could be inaccurate for an entire decade if this question were to be added.”

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The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday (April 23) is expected to hear arguments about whether the new question, asking whether the members of a household are citizens, can be included on the 2020 census form.

Nielsen has already filed an amicus brief with the court, stating its position on the issue.

“This was a question that was added without the proper testing and without going through the proper testing,” Pierce said. “As a result we believe that there is a very high likelihood that we could see an undercount. Having an undercount has an impact on us. It has an impact on our clients and the media business as a whole.”

Nielsen benchmarks its measurements — from its television universe estimates, to determining the composition of its ratings panel, to its local market rankings — against the census. Pierce said there’s no substitute for an accurate census.

“While there’s lots of different sources of data out there, there just no replacement for an accurate census,” she said.

Pierce said Nielsen is certain that adding the citizenship question would result in an undercount, but that Nielsen has not estimated how big that undercount would be.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, an analysis by the Census Bureau found that 5.8% of households with a noncitizen would not respond to the census if the citizenship question were added. That would mean 6.5 million people left uncounted.

The undercount would affect some demographics more than others.

“The question itself is likely to impact multicultural segments,” Pierce said, adding that it would “have a ripple effect into communities where multicultural populations live.”

In its brief to the Supreme Court, Nielsen said “a reduction in the accuracy of the census occasioned by the addition of the citizenship question would have lasting negative consequences for American business. Particularly troubling is the possibility that a potential undercount of non-citizen or minority households will result in an underweighting of those households’ preferences.”

If the citizenship question does get into the census, Nielsen said it will try to find ways to calibrate the data to make it more accurate, but it would be a harder process.

Business groups, including the Association of National Advertisers, have come out against the change in the census. “Census counts need to be as accurate as possible to help ANA members optimize their marketing investments,” the association said.

Outside of business, the citizenship issue is a partisan one, with the Trump administration looking to slow immigration. The results of the new census will affect how areas are represented in congress and how much money is spent on services in areas that embrace noncitizens.

As the Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments, Nielsen will be communicating with the industry about the issue.

“We don't see this as a political issue at all, actually," Pierce said. "We see this as a matter of science. So the Census Data the decennial census in particular, is really the foundation of the data that we use and the data that we provide to our clients.”

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