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Jewish World Review April 9, 2002 / 28 Nisan, 5762

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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How polls distort the news, change the outcome of elections and encourage legislation that undermines the foundations of the republic | Like it or not, public opinion polls are inescapable. Hardly a day goes by without the latest CNN-this or Washington Post-that poll purporting to tell how Americans think about everything from Social Security reform to Olympic figure skating.

Most thinking people just complain about the short-comings of polls - they aren't scientific, they are biased, they are misused. Matthew Robinson went a lot further. He wrote "Mobocracy," a book set out to expose how polls distort the news, change the outcome of elections and encourage legislation that undermines the foundations of the republic.

I talked recently to the former Investor's Business Daily reporter and editor by telephone from his home near Washington, D.C.:

Q: A recent CNN poll published in The Washington Post said that most of the Muslims around the world really, really hate us. Should we believe it?

A: You picked one of the most interesting polls in recent memory. It shows that whatever an American reads about polling, they should always take it with a grain of salt and be aware that there might be mistakes.

That poll was done by the Gallup organization for CNN and USA Today. There were some serious problems with the way Gallup presented its data to the reporters and how the reporters transmitted the data to the public.

Q: According to your book, this is not an uncommon fault of a poll.

A: No, it is not. Polls commonly fall prey to what you and I both know in the journalist profession is the over-emphasis on drama, the tendency toward sensationalization and the selectivity of reportage.

Q: What's the best thing you can say about polling in America - when they're used fairly?

A: At the end of the book, I talk about what I think is the most important contribution of public opinion polling, and that is telling us exactly what the public knows about a subject. Not what their impressions are. Not what their prejudices are. Not what their gut feelings are. What they actually know. That can be a real humbling experience for public officials and it can be very educational for reporters.

I think one of the most important contributions that polling can have is to remind us when we need to talk about the mechanics, and when we need to get the public fully informed, before we start asking what their opinion is or before we start pushing legislation through.

If the public does not understand something or does not fully understand the cost of something, it's important that we get everyone on board. As the Founders believed, we shouldn't be legislating by "temporary delusion."

Q: How did America become so poll-happy?

A: It comes from our Jeffersonian roots, our respect for our fellow citizen and just general human curiosity. It really started back in the 1970s when CBS News shook hands with The New York Times and decided they were going to reduce the cost of polling and start doing them together. Once that happened, it guaranteed that polls were going to be big news.

Q: Are polls news or are they opinion?

A: If you read my book, you come away with the feeling that it's much more opinion than it is news. It's tempting for journalists and for the media, because polls are instant news and they get to define what it is going to be.

So if they find something of great importance to them - let's say after a gun tragedy, reporting on the crisis of too many guns in the world. When they report on the crisis of too many guns in the world - or the so-called crisis - they can then go out after a tragedy when the public is soft and fearful of this issue, and do a poll. It helps ratify their own belief system and helps extend the story that interests them. And it helps put pressure on the politicians they oppose.

Q: What, briefly, is so wrong or most dangerous about the way polls are put together and are being used?

A: The most dangerous thing is that they are a poor substitute for good debate and for an educated public. And by reducing our deliberations to just 30 or 40 words in a poll, they do great injury and great disservice. And they misrepresent public policy issues and they misrepresent what kind of government we live under, which is a constitutional republic that limits government and provides and protects the freedom of the individual.

Q: Who are the ones who are misusing the polls and why?

A: The people who are misusing the polls are probably the major media. Political candidates, parties, have the incentive to find out the truth, because ultimately they have to face the public.

But the media is able to jigger with results and they do not hold each other accountable very often. So their polls tend to be very fast and loose. They're often done overnight. X They're often done in the heat of the moment, in the passion of the liberal newsroom. X

For instance, back in 1995, when The New York Times polled on Medicare reform. When they reported on their polling at the time of the GOP reforms, they tended to emphasize the opposition to it, even though they had questions that showed that people supported many of the Republican ideas.

Q: What are your politics?

A: I would probably liken myself to an old American Whig, which I guess would be fairly close to the cynical libertarian. I obviously vote in a more conservative manner, but I tend to think the less government the better.

Q: Would you be so critical of polling if they were pushing a more conservative or libertarian agenda and not a liberal, big-government agenda?

A: Yes. Because the thing I point out is that polling is not a substitute for elected leaders who become informed and have to answer to the public. By reducing our public debate to such a sound-bite, ink-bite, grunt-and-drool political vocabulary we really fail to count the cost of different courses of action.

What that means is that right now polling rarely asks what the cost is to freedom, what the cost is to limited government. It just kind of gives you nice, harmless questions that say, if we just expand government a little more we might be able to solve this problem.

In my opinion, polling is not a good substitute for what the Founding Fathers intended, which was a First Amendment that protected the right of courageous, vigilant, citizen legislators to stand up and take on hard questions and persuade the public.

Q: What are your prescriptions for reforming the polling process?

A: The prescription for reform is to make all polling questions available to the public, to publish the number of people who hang up and refuse to talk to pollsters. Those people tend to be more conservative. They tend to have things to do with their lives. They tend to go out on the weekends. That's why you should be very doubtful of weekend polls.

I also call for a complete and utter, total and absolute end to overnight polls. They just tend to be more sloppy and I think there are methodological problems that may make them biased to the left.

Q: How can the average Joe tell a good poll from a bad one, or spot bias or manipulation in a question?

A: I think the first thing is to start with the poll questions. The biggest disservice that journalists do is that they only quote part of a question, they only give part of the results and they do not tell you what goes on with a poll.

The first thing that a citizen should do to be vigilant and to be informed is that if they see a poll that they think is fishy, they should immediately go to the Web and try to read all of the questions, in order.

You will soon see, just by reading five or 10 of the questions together, the direction the pollster is taking and what kinds of things might be biasing the way people are answering the questions.

Another great possibility is to go and look at, which has lots of different polling questions on the same subjects, so you get to see how wording affects the outcome of different questions.

JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald