Public Pulse


April 25, 1993|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF

Just a couple of weeks before he won this year's Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning, Stephen R. Benson of the Arizona Republic joked, "There's nothing so small it can't be blown out of proportion."

He was speaking about his craft, which prides itself on angering readers, but the line is good for public opinion polls, too. Talk about blowing things out of proportion: Pick 1,500 people and make them speak for a nation of 250 million.

I don't doubt polls' essential accuracy about specific questions asked at one millisecond in time. There are kernels and grains of truth there. Yet, I take many polls, a staple of the media banquet, with grains of salt.

Polls are a shortcut. Questions avoid many shadings of meanings everyone has on any one query. Answers often conflict. People polled may change their minds in an hour or fib to look or feel good. Answers are often pollsters' own words from multiple choice offerings. Because polls are often horse race tests (who's winning, who's losing), readers and listeners may -- just quote or ignore them depending on their own biases.

To confuse the issue further, newspaper, TV or radio stations often play results differently from poll to poll, depending on the day's news or who paid for the poll.

Recently The Sun played President Clinton's low ratings one day in a four-paragraph story deep inside the paper. A few days later The Sun played a similar result in another poll as the lead story on Page 1. The moral is: Better read or watch or listen more than one day.

Yet, polls can be warnings. That's the way I took a poll of 1,703 adults March 6-9 on media performance by The Sun's sister paper, The Los Angeles Times, also owned by Times Mirror, Inc. It follows a 1985 media poll.

* The media were seen as doing an overall "good" job, but daily newspapers and local TV have declined somewhat in esteem since 1985 (while network TV has not slipped).

* The biggest, most disturbing complaints about the media in general? "Too sensational, they hype news," headed the list, mentioned by 28 percent; "biased, not balanced in coverage," 22 percent; "inaccurate, don't tell truth," 15 percent; "rude, intrusive, violate people's privacy," 11 percent; "too negative," 10 percent; "pursuing their own agenda," 7 percent; and others, including 14 percent who said they couldn't think of anything.

* The media got higher marks for accuracy (network TV, 86 percent positive; local TV, 89 percent; newspapers, 84 percent) than fairness (network TV, 77 percent positive; local TV, 82 percent; newspapers, 68 percent).

* On reporting or weighing facts, 75 percent said media should report the facts and let people make up their own minds, while 21 percent said the media should weigh facts and come up with conclusions and solutions.

That's a tiny part of a national poll. What are Sun readers actually griping about these days? Here are some recent sample topics:

1. Several said The Sun was "irresponsible" to publish the names, ages, addresses, even hospitals of 12 shooting victims while the shooters on 21st Street April 10 were still at large.

Another said it was "crazy" to publish the name and picture of a reported witness leaning out of a nearby window. I agree and have criticized the paper's inconsistent, sometimes unthinking, practice. As a result of this incident, The Sun said it is formulating a policy on the publication of crime victims' names.

2. Some 780 callers attacked The Sun for its new "wrong" policy of banning classified gun ads. Orchestrated calls? Some messages were similar. Some people dropped their subscriptions. About 50 callers applauded. Letters ran roughly 50-50. The Sun said it did this to help curtail the proliferation of guns. Last fall, Scott Shane wrote in a Sun story about the spread of guns, "Newspaper classified advertisements offer a source of guns less risky and more reliable than the streets." I agree with The Sun. It's hypocritical to urge gun control on the editorial pages and then sell guns in the open marketplace of classified ads.

3. About a dozen readers asked if The Sun was covering up on Monday, April 12, when it didn't write about the Inner Harbor "riot" Easter Sunday, the day before, causing stores to be closed. Sun editors said they didn't know about the events. The paper followed with a 29-paragraph story Tuesday. There were no arrests, injuries or damage, but there were large groups of young people, some fist fights, some early store closings. There were also reports that some young people scared older people with taunts or threats. It's becoming an Easter event. Staffers marked their calendars for next Easter.

Ernest Imhoff is readers' representative for The Baltimore Sun.

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