Believe your eyes, not opinion polls

March 26, 2003|By Daniel Meltzer

BRITISH PRIME Minister Tony Blair "brought down the house" (of Commons) a few of weeks ago when he was asked what other nation, besides Britain and the United States, supports an invasion of Iraq.

"Poland," he replied. The laughter in the chamber took nearly a full minute to subside as he looked about him with an expression of, well, shock and awe.

Backing from the Poles for the war against Iraq is credible, if of questionable value. The polls are another matter. Americans would do well to doubt the degree of citizen support for the war being reported here. These numbers are printed and broadcast regularly and accepted as something resembling fact when they are anything but.

Does an overwhelming majority of Americans, as poll figures seem to indicate, believe the president and support the war? Or do the large protest rallies and marches suggest instead that most citizens doubt his motives and oppose what is being called the most radical and arguably the most perilous shift in U.S. foreign policy in half a century -- "preventive warfare" against nations that have neither attacked us nor threatened to attack in the belief that they may in the future?

The results of periodic public opinion polls are routinely regarded as reliable by most news organizations and are disseminated widely. Recently published polls on the subject of Iraq, examined more closely, can be revealed, however (as have been many in the past), as being of dubious credibility and/or accuracy.

A New York Times/CBS News public opinion poll published Saturday in The Times reported that about 70 percent of the American public strongly supports the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The poll was quoted widely in other papers and on broadcast news programs, often positioned to contrast with, or to "balance," well-attended anti-war protests that were taking place across the country and around the world. San Francisco police had arrested more than 1,000 protesters over two consecutive days of street action, and the generally conservative New York Police Department estimated there were more than 125,000 demonstrators Saturday, perhaps an all-time record for anti-war activism in the city.

Not mentioned at all during broadcast reports of the poll, however, and buried inside The Times that day was that its survey's conclusion was based on interviews with no more than 463 American adults, randomly chosen by computer from various households across the country. Pollsters consistently claim that their samplings, regardless of how minuscule, represent, within a negligible margin of error, the opinions of all Americans.

To put this into proper perspective, bear in mind that the 463 "adults" reportedly contacted by telephone represent an infinitesimal fraction of our population of about 280 million. And yet the clear conclusion suggested in virtually all reports of the poll was that Americans overwhelmingly support the war on Iraq.

Few of us need to be reminded that these same pollsters, who conduct random opinion "sampling" from tiny percentages of willing or compliant Americans, have already botched more than a few pre-election estimates and Election Day exit polls in recent years.

Nor do the published or broadcast survey reports provide the actual wording of the questions that had been posed during the interviews. Pollsters readily acknowledge that the language and nuances of the questions themselves can influence responses.

Perhaps this is just part of the continued numbing, if not dumbing, of America -- a concession by the media to the notion that Americans can and should be told what to think.

As a veteran of national news coverage, I can tell you that from a business standpoint, it has long been valued as a cheap story for the organization breaking the story, in this case The Times and CBS News -- no travel or per diem expenses and virtually cost-free for all of the other papers or broadcasters who will quote it. Bang-per-buck ratio is consistently high.

How should you react to the next random-sample opinion poll thrown at you? To paraphrase the motto of one of our least objective news media outlets: I am reporting this to you, now you decide.

Daniel Meltzer teaches journalism at New York University.

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