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Public Ignorance Polls August 23, 2010

Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Media, Politics.
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News consumers are subjected to a daily deluge of polling data. Unfortunately, like much of today’s media coverage, this information is not leaving us better informed.

A conventional issue-specific opinion poll offers a choice between two valid responses.  For example, “Do you approve of the death penalty?”  This is an appropriate poll.  There is no right or wrong answer; there are substantive arguments to support both positions, and the poll attempts to gauge public support for a controversial policy that is directly relevant to our nation’s governance.

A regrettable distinction can be made between a prototypical public opinion poll such as that and the frivolous politically-charged polls we see more and more today.  I’m referring to polls such as, “Is Obama a Muslim?”

This question has a wrong answer.  The responses are not equally valid.  Such polls do not measure public opinion, they measure public ignorance.  Worse, they measure the successful pervasion of partisan misinformation.

These polls are everywhere, and the results are always shameful:

What angers me most about these polls is that the phrase “believe in” really means “understand that.”  These aren’t questions of choice.  There is only one right answer.  It’s indisputable.

The respondents in these three polls didn’t express their opinions, they betrayed their ignorance.  And that ignorance is not the innocent absence of education, it’s the sinister product of deliberate misinformation spread by well-funded special interests (for the polls above, evangelicals, big polluters and conservatives respectively…forgive the fuzzy boundaries between them).

Now, I am not saying that ignorance should be prosecuted like some Orwellian thoughtcrime.  To me, all these polls really show is that the media are failing. True, propagandists and politicians breathe life into these stories, but journalists are the ones who perpetuate this nonsense.

In the new era of “fairness and balance,” the media think they have to report every claim a partisan commentator makes without remarking on its truthfulness – because that would be “unbalanced.”  Think of birtherism, Obama’s supposed socialism, death panels…all these manufactured scandals started as baseless comments reported by the media without question merely because a partisan spoke them.  Apparently transcribing a press release or interview is now where a journalist’s obligation ends: We accuse, you decide.

Yet opposition does not confer equivalency.  Just because there are two sides to a story does not mean they’re necessarily equal.  For a journalist to automatically report them as such is misleading.

When a Wisconsin senate candidate says climate science is wrong and gives a scientifically disproven alternative “explanation,” it’s not partisan to say he’s lying – it’s accurate.  In fact, to merely parrot those proven lies isn’t balance, it’s active disinformation.

Real public opinion polls have obvious political value for politicians and advocates etc.  But what do public ignorance polls contribute to society?  Nothing.  They just validate the misconceptions they seek to quantify by presenting them on equal footing with actual facts.  This is another manifestation of the “bias of balance” in modern media coverage.

With one notable exception, today’s major media outlets are not trying to disseminate falsehoods, but they are succeeding nonetheless.  As long as we allow balance to trump accuracy in journalism, this type of ignorance will not only persist but continue to spread.

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