Tuesday, January 23, 2007

What do the opinion polls actually say?

When I lived in San Francisco, I knew a lot of people who worked for phone polling companies. They would talk about how the questions they were payed to ask people were very carefully worded, designed to extract a particular response. They often said that with the right wording, you could get poll results that said just about anything you could want it to say.

Neal Boortz has an interesting post today on this very topic:

[...] What you have with these polls is the news media covering news that it has created. Usually the questions are phrased in such a way that the media outlet conducting the poll is going to get just the response they're looking for .. a response that will fit neatly within some story that has essentially already been written.

Let's take a look at the latest Washington Post - ABC poll:

Sixty-five percent disapprove of how Bush is handling his job as president. Fine .. now just what does that say. Do they disagree because he has used too much force in Iraq, or not enough? Do they disagree because they think Bush hasn't spent enough on education, or because he spent too much? Do they disapprove because he has blocked government-funded stem cell research, or because he hasn't pushed for a Constitutional amendment banning abortion? What do these polls say? You don't really know, do you?

Seventy-one percent say that our country is on the wrong track. Fine ... but again, what does this mean? I think that our country is on the wrong track because we aren't reducing the size and power of the federal government. Others think that our country is on the wrong track because the federal government isn't doing enough. I think we're on the wrong track because we aren't moving toward comprehensive tax reform. Others think we're on the wrong track because taxes aren't high enough. I think that the country is on the wrong track because we aren't moving toward free market reforms in health care. Others think that we're not on the right track because we're not moving toward socialized medicine? So ... 71% think our country is on the wrong track, but what does that mean? [...]

(bold emphasis mine) Neal goes on with more examples of how polls are used to make stories the media wants you to believe, in contradiction to actual facts.

The questions Neal asks about the poll results can change the entire context, but few people seem to be asking these kinds of questions. In San Francisco I had also worked at a Radio/TV station for a while, where I learned about "spin". The media could take poll results like these and "spin" them to tell any kind of story they wanted, just by omitting anything that contradicted the story they wanted to tell. Whatever happened to real journalism?

Here's a good one from before Christmas...

The Holidays may be over, but the story remains the same.


Dionne said...

I needed this after all the bad news today!! Awesome post!

Chas said...

But is the news REALLY that bad, or are they just spinning it that way? ;-)

I like your post on the President's SOTU address, I'm going to link to it.