Politicians, Journalists, and Pollsters a Hate-Love Relationship?

A General Session at the WAPOR regional conference on “Elections, News Media, and Public Opinion“ in Pamplona, Spain, November, 24-26, 2004, 9:45 am to 1:00 pm.

Chairman: Hans L Zetterberg:

We shall deal in our panel with the different perspectives held by politicians, journalists, and pollsters on democratic elections. We deal with them at a meeting of a learned society, World Association of Public Opinion Research, which means that we also include the perspectives of scholars.

Everyone in our audience is more or less familiar with recent election events, among others,

bulletThe Spanish election last year and its context of terrorist bombings in Madrid during the final days of the campaign.
bulletThe feast of the recent election in India leading to a peaceful change of governments in the world’s largest democracy.
bulletEuropean Parliament election this summer with few genuine EU issues in most campaigns, and outcomes affected by attitudes toward one’s own national government of the day. Turnout 45.7 percent. (Italy 73.1 percent!)
bulletThe election in Afghanistan, an apparent success in an occupied country without an established rule of law.
bulletThe United States election earlier this month, in effect a referendum on George W. Bush won by George W. Bush. Turnout 59.5 percent. (Minnesota 77.3 percent!)
bulletThe election in Ukraine last week that did not meet the standards of various watch dogs and showed significant discrepancies between exit polls and announced election results. This is the type of instance in which WAPOR may be called upon to give testimony. Or, if left unresolved, we may ourselves initiate an investigation, as we once did in Mexico.

At no previous point in history have such wealth of experiences and data been immediately available to inform about the relations between politicians, journalists, pollsters, and scholars.

This is the order of topics:

Polling: Kathleen Frankovic, (CBS/New York Times Poll) and Carlos Malo de Molina, (SigmaDos)
Francisco G. Basterra, (CNN+)
Politics (and Scholarship)
: Pilar del Castillo (ex-minister, EU parliamentarian, Professor of Political Science and Sociology)
Brief comments, if any, by panalists on each others’ presentations.

Coffee break.

General discussion.

 For a start, here are some scattered thoughts of mine to provoke your thoughts:

bulletThe pollsters quantify and publicize opinions presented as majority and minority views. They usually make no difference between the answers from people who have thought long about an issue and discussed it with many others and the answers from those who never thought about an issue until the pollster’s interviewer brought it up. When the latter are many in a sample, the poll becomes a promoter of premature opinions and an enemy of the mature public opinions required in a democracy.
When a poll presenting a clear majority view on an issue is published, many in the minority will be discouraged in pressing their less popular view in public (Noelle Neumann). The visibility of a clear majority view also tends to close further public debate (Yankelovich).
The best analysis of poll data uses comparisons with other poll data. However, this mode of analysis is used only sporadically. For example, pollsters rarely, if at all, point out that no national poll ever, in any nation, have favored going to war prior to the actual beginning of hostilities. In one of the very first polls on the European continent, the French public in 1938 showed full support for the concessions to Hitler in the Munich Accord (“peace in our time” as it was called by the British Prime Minister). Roosevelt prepared for war while the American public was against war. He could not take his nation to war with public support until the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor and Hitler had declared war against United States.
Pollsters often work on the assumption that public opinion in a country should guide the country’s politicians. But what do they make of their own findings that large numbers in most Muslim countries think that United States engineered the 9/11 terror acts to have an excuse to go to war? Or, what would they say if a poll confirms that a majority of Palestinians think that Arafat was poisoned by Israel? Are such conspiracy assumptions, backed by poll data, grounds for sound political decisions in Arab countries?
bulletThe journalists and their media tend to personalize events and conflicts. The war against militant Muslims is symbolized by bin Laden, the Middle East conflict is personalized by Arafat, the rift between the US and the rest of the world is illustrated by George W. Bush. TV is much better in presenting human faces than presenting economic trends, demographic facts, technological innovations, scientific discoveries, and the contents of morality or religion. However, all these factors are usually more essential in a scholarly explanation of the conflicts than the personalities featured by TV.
The ethics of journalism requires a fair presentation of all sides of a conflict. This tends to give the minority view the same status as the majority view, and a minor expert with a deviant position the same status as a major and mainstream expert (Westerståhl).
Journalists present news by use of a frame or single headline under which everything can be viewed and summarized for the public. It is bad journalism to let your story wander in all directions. To avoid confusion, you normally use one and the same frame for each evolving new report on the same topic, e.g. an election campaign. The choice of frame depends on the opinion climate in the editorial offices. Compare Fox News and CBS news. Is a partisan coloring of media an unavoidable consequence of the mode of journalistic communication?
bulletThe scholars are the accepted watch dogs of survey methodology. They are also supposed to stand up for generalizations that are valid by the criteria of the scientific method, and thus backed by evidence and not contradicted by other established generalizations. In the field of public opinion there are only a few solid generalizations that have stood the test of time. An eighty year old one from Chicago sociologist William I. Thomas is worth remembering: If people believe a situation as real it becomes real in its consequences. For example, if a government believes that a state prone to hostilities has weapons of mass destruction; this belief has real consequences irrespective of the correctness of the belief. One consequence may be a preventive war. Another consequence might be a practice of torture or humiliation to find out about the expected weapons of mass destruction from prisoners. Is there any way in which such scholarly founded generalizations can be beacons for journalists and politicians?
bulletThe politicians are faced with a variety of background material for their decisions. Normally polls on party standing and confidence ratings give leading politicians a good hint about their chances of getting into office and their chances of re-election. But calculations by pollsters and politicians may go wrong. For example, Jose María Aznar, being some six points ahead in the polls, seems to have been so sure of his re-election that he decided to postpone some important appointments until the campaign was over.
Polls on issues seem to affect politicians less than the public and journalists assume. In fact, in most democratic countries there are no polls published on most issues that legislators cope with in their daily work. Even in countries dense in polling, the details of the legislative work are not reflected in the published polls. The language of legislation is very different from the language of polling.
The modus vivendi of the typical democratic politician is to follow their local or regional traditions, their own personal convictions, their party leader, their party’s platform, internal discussions at party caucuses, leads from party activists, reports from government agencies, expert testimony, and suggestions given by lobbyists, as well as information in mass media. For politicians, polls on issues are only one source of information among many others, often a marginal one.

There is not much love between pollsters, journalists, scholars, and politicians, nor is there much hate. But there are ambivalent aspects of their relations that need illumination and discussion.