"Opinion polls don't just
measure; they also manipulate, helping to shape
"Mainstream polls are so much a part of the media wallpaper that we're
"In the case of the
Bush administration's plans to launch an all-out
"According to a
recent CBS News poll, 51 percent of Americans say that
"The result is likely to be
mental constriction in the guise of
Before decisions get made in Washington -- and even
politicians open their mouths about key issues -- there are polls. Lots of
them. Whether splashed across front pages or commissioned by candidates
for private analysis, the statistical sampling of public opinion is a
constant in political life.
We may believe that polls tell us what Americans are thinking. But
polls also gauge the effectiveness of media spin -- and contribute to it.
Opinion polls don't just measure; they also manipulate, helping to shape
thoughts and tilting our perceptions of how most people think.
Polls routinely invite the respondents to choose from choices that
have already been prepared for them. Results hinge on the exact phrasing
of questions and the array of multiple-choice answers, as candid players
in the polling biz readily acknowledge.
"Slight differences in question wording, or in the placement of the
questions in the interview, can have profound consequences," Gallup
executive David Moore wrote a few years ago in his book "The
Superpollsters." He observed that poll outcomes "are very much influenced
by the polling process itself." And in turn, whatever their quality,
polling numbers "influence perceptions, attitudes and decisions at every
level of our society."
In the process, opinions are narrowed into a few pre-fabricated
slots. The result is likely to be mental constriction in the guise of
"Opinion-polling as practiced in the United States ... presents
itself as a means of registering opinions and expressing choices," media
critic Herbert Schiller noted three decades ago. His assessment of polling
remains cogent today: "It is a choice-restricting mechanism. Because
ordinary polls reduce, and sometimes eliminate entirely, the ... true
spectrum of possible options, the possibilities and preferences they
express are better viewed as 'guided' choices."
Mainstream polls are so much a part of the media wallpaper that we're
apt to miss how arbitrarily they limit people's sense of wider
possibilities. And we may forget that those who pay the pollsters commonly
influence the scope of ideas and attitudes deemed worthy of consideration.
In his book "The Mind Managers," Schiller pointed out: "Those who
dominate governmental decision-making and private economic activity are
the main supports of the pollsters. The vital needs of these groups
determine, intentionally or not, the parameters within which polls are
When the U.S. government takes military action, instant polls help to
propel the rapid-fire cycles of spin. After top officials in Washington
have engaged in a well-coordinated media blitz during the crucial first
hours of warfare, the TV networks tell us that most Americans approve --
and the quick poll results may seem to legitimize and justify the decision
to begin the bloodshed.
In the case of the Bush administration's plans to launch an all-out
attack on Iraq, the U.S. military build-up in the Persian Gulf region has
run parallel to a sustained propaganda campaign on the home front during
the past several months. Even so, the extent of public support is foggy.
At the end of September, a murky picture emerged from an article in
the Washington Post by the director of the big-bucks Pew Research Center
for the People and the Press. "Almost all national surveys this year,"
Andrew Kohut wrote, "have found a broad base of potential support for
using military force to rid the world of Saddam Hussein." Yet such
generalities can be deceiving. Kohut reported that the Pew Center's latest
poll "found that 64 percent generally favor military action against Iraq,
but that withers to 33 percent if our allies do not join us."
According to a recent CBS News poll, 51 percent of Americans say that
Hussein was involved in the 9-11 attacks. But there's no evidence for that
assertion. So, as in countless other cases, the failures of news media to
clearly convey pivotal matters of fact -- and the unwillingness of
journalists to challenge deceptive claims from the White House -- boost
the poll numbers for beliefs that lack a factual basis.
Polls may seem to provide clarity in a confusing world. But all too
often they amount to snapshots taken from slanted angles.
Norman Solomon is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy (I'd recommend a visit to the site), a nationwide consortium of public-policy researchers. He has written op-ed pieces for Boston Globe, Washington Post, Newsday, New York Times, Miami Herald, Los Angeles Times, USA Today and Baltimore Sun, and is a far more successful writer than Alex Sandell will ever be. His column, normally titled, "Media Beat," is nationally syndicated in a wide variety of newspapers. If you'd like to see his weekly "Media Beat" column published on the opinion page of your local daily newspaper(s), please contact the opinion-page editor at the paper(s) and suggest that the paper give his column a try. Please mention to editors that his weekly column is available to newspapers from Creators Syndicate. Norman Solomon's latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."
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