Why I’m Suspicious of Polls

It’s not that pollsters are dishonest, though some may be. Nor is it that the people polled give answers they think the pollsters want or political correctness demands, though many timid folk may do so. No, the reason I am suspicious of polls is that many people don’t have carefully formed opinions of their own—the kind formed by weighing real facts and drawing logical conclusions. What they have instead, and what they express to pollsters, is the ideas that news sources have repeated so often that consider them their own.

Consider two recent polls of what people think about the state of the country, as reported in the Washington Post story, “Americans pessimistic about Trump [and] country [according to] AP-NORC Poll[s].” (The acronym stands for Associated Press and National Opinion Research Center.) Here are the main details:

Thirty percent of those polled believe the country is “heading in the right direction,” and 52 percent believe is “worse off since Trump became president.”

“Only 20 percent say they personally are doing better.”

When it comes to whether the country is more united or divided under Trump’s leadership, nine percent say united while 67 percent say divided “because of Trump.” The Post adds that in 2016 only 44% thought Obama had divided the country.

“Notably,” the report concludes, “the deep-seated pessimism about the president and national politics doesn’t extend to local communities,” where “55% of Democrats and 50 percent of Republicans feel optimistic” about what is happening in their communities.”

As I suggested, pollsters merely compile data and thus are not responsible for what people tell them. And those who respond to pollsters’ questions are no doubt generally forthright and sincere. The problem is that many of them mistakenly assume that whatever opinions they find in the media and/or social media are based on fact. They may also confuse embracing someone else’s opinion with thinking out one’s own opinion.

Simply said, in many cases polls don’t tell us what people think about a person or program or controversial issue—rather, they tell us what people have heard repeated over and over in the news and carelessly accept as the truth.

What is the theme of news stories about the Trump administration? That President Trump is alternately a fool and a knave who doesn’t know what he is doing and is harming the country by his incompetence or his inappropriate and even criminal actions, notably “colluding” with Russia.

For example, a report analyzed  370 news stories about President Trump on NBC, CBS, and Fox News in January and February of 2017.  The NBC and CBS stories scored 43% negative, 54% neutral, and only 3 percent positive. On Fox, the percentages were 25% negative, 63 percent neutral, and 12 percent positive.

The Media Research Center did similar analyses for June, July, August and September, October, November 2017. In each case, the news reports of President Trump were the same—91 percent negative! For example, in September there were 31 positive versus 359 negative statements, and in October 41 positive versus 435 negative statements.

As important as the repetition of negative stories about President Trump is the ignoring of his positive achievements, which makes it difficult, in some cases impossible, for those who watch the news to form positive views of him. Here are just a few of the facts that have gone unreported or underreported in most mainstream media outlets:

President Trump signed more legislation in his first 100 days than any president since Harry Truman.

He withdrew from the controversial Paris Agreement on Climate Change

He de-certified the controversial Iran nuclear deal.

He approved the tapping of U.S. oil reserves in Anwar.

Under his leadership almost 100% of the territory taken by ISIS has been recaptured.

He eliminated tens of thousands of pages of regulations: According to an Office of Management and Budget spokesman: “As far as we are aware, no previous administration has deregulated or withdrawn as many anticipated regulatory actions as this one in this short amount of time . . . .”

Since he became president the stock market has risen more than at any time since 1945. “On the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s win in the U.S. presidential race, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is showing its biggest post-Election Day gain in more than 70 years.”

In two of his three completed quarters in office, Trump has achieved 3 percent growth, compared to Obama’s average of 2 percent.

Since he was elected, unemployment has dropped to a 17-year low.

He recently signed into law a significant tax cut that many believe will continue the positive direction of the economy.

To withhold newsworthy facts from the public and to use the news forum to spread opinions on only one side of issues is not only a violation of the public trust and of the code of journalistic ethics. It is also, according to Pope Francis, a grave sin.

In speaking to a gathering of journalists, Francis cautioned: “You shouldn’t fall into the ‘sins of communication:’ disinformation, or giving just one side, calumny that is sensationalised, or defamation, looking for things that are old news and have been dealt with and bringing them to light today.” Such actions, he explained, constitute “a grave sin that hurts the heart of the journalist and hurts others.”

He explained further that “There is an urgent need for reliable information, with verified data and news, which does not aim to amaze and excite, but rather to make readers develop a healthy critical sense, enabling them to ask themselves appropriate questions and reach justified conclusions.”

The importance of the Pope’s message was underscored by his announcing that the theme of 2018’s World Communications day will be “’The truth will set you free’ (Jn 8:32). Fake news [versus] journalism for peace.” (The Vatican Secretariat for Communications defined Fake News as “namely, baseless information that contributes to generating and nurturing a strong polarization of opinions.”)

I am encouraged that Pope Francis has taken a stand on the important issue of journalistic integrity, and I hope that the men and women in the media will see the wisdom of his words. If they do, they will restore the integrity of their profession and the public will be able to form their opinions on the basis of fact rather than propaganda. At that time, we will all be able to take opinion polls more seriously.

Copyright © 2017 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved