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Media Malpractice: The Problems with Opinion Poll Journalism

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Every semester when I teach my students about the media, I present them with the neglected history of American investigative journalism. I tell them about Ida B. Wells, who documented lynchings across the South in the late 1800s. I tell them about the muckrakers like Upton Sinclair, Ida Tarbell, and Lincoln Steffens, who documented and exposed inhumane working conditions and the corrupt collusion between business magnates and politicians during the Progressive Era.

I introduce them to George Seldes and I.F. Stone and Seymour Hersch before capping off the semester with a showing of All The President’s Men, during which two dogged journalists bring down an entire administration. I even show them a video of conservative activist James O’Keefe as he demonstrates how simple it is to vote on someone else’s behalf — even the attorney general of the United States.

I do this to remind them of a durable and venerable tradition of intrepid reporting in this country and to convince them that indeed a single person can make a difference — a single article or book can alter the public’s consciousness and lead to new discussions and legislation.

This lesson is designed as a kind of stealth inoculation: a lesson that is motivated out a of a sense of frustration and despair regarding the current state of journalism in this country — a lesson that is meant to suggest that things have not always been this way, and that we can demand more from this noble profession.

Others have commented on how many of our political media outlets traffic in sensationalism. Michael Austin wrote an excellent article on the manufacturing of outrage and the deliberate abuse of hyperbolic language, story selection, and partisan framing in order to generate extreme emotional responses — and higher ratings. Indeed, this is journalism — if we can call it that — at its worst.

But even when professional journalism is at its most serious, it is a travesty, especially when it takes the form of “public opinion journalism.”

It is now considered responsible journalism to lead a story with a headline that begins, “Latest Poll Finds…” The video above features Chuck Todd, NBC News’ political director and a ubiquitous panelist on NBC and MSNBC). Todd is the poster boy of public opinion journalism.

What is scandalous is the way this species of journalism corrupts our political dialogue. It is now considered perfectly normal and insightful to ask a thousand Americans what their “approval rating” is of the president or other political actors or groups. The poll mentioned in the video includes a question that reaches a new low: “Can the president lead and get the job done?”

This strikes me as slightly more insipid than the fatuous inquiry: “Do you think the country is headed in the right direction?”

Readers must ask themselves, are these the best questions that can be asked to begin conversations about complex political matters? Are these the kinds of questions pollsters should be asking intelligent, responsible, and thoughtful adults?

Notice the hasty connections that Chuck Todd draws when he invokes the president’s dropping approval numbers on foreign policy; he simply spits out proper nouns that are currently charged with negative emotions: “Syria, then you have the crisis in Ukraine, then you have the situation with the Bergdahl trade, then we can talk about the Iranian negotiations,” and so on.

Completely absent here is any kind of nuance or any attempt at understanding to what degree the president is able to shape events in these places.

This kind of oversimplification of people’s emotions and the regurgitation of people’s binary responses to complex matters comes at a cost. For instance, an ABC News/Washington Post poll from 2013 found that while 52 percent of those surveyed opposed the Affordable Care Act, more (62%) felt they did not have enough information about the law.

A poll from the same year by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that there still exists much misinformation about some of the basic provisions of the law, including 57 percent who believe that the law opened up a public option, and 40 percent who believe that it created “death panels” that give the government the authority to make end-of-life decisions for recipients of Medicare.

In a complete abdication of journalistic accountability, Chuck Todd, speaking on the issue of misunderstanding of the health care law, blamed the president and the Democrats for not successfully “selling” the law to the public rather than acknowledging that it is the responsibility of the media — which instead habitually and lazily assess the evolving popularity or “approval” of the law — to accurately represent the law’s contents.

But it gets worse: not only does public opinion journalism displace real journalism, its focus on image, popularity, and “optics” debases our political discourse and turns the media and its leading figures into political arms for both parties.

During what ought to have been a serious and analytical discussion of Obama’s foreign policy during his appearance on Meet the Press on August 10, 2014, Chuck Todd called the president’s foreign policy “poll perfect” to describe the way the president has tried to appease the public’s (alleged) reluctance to intervene militarily abroad.

Political leaders have learned how to manipulate the media and its penchant for tracking popularity for their short-term benefit, and, after enough time, viewers have come to see every politician’s utterance as calculated to have precisely this effect.

With the media focused on image and the 'impact' of politicians’ statements and actions rather than on their substance, viewers become wary and cynical.
In other words, with the media focused on image and the “impact” of politicians’ statements and actions rather than on their substance, viewers become wary and cynical – attitudes that further erode our trust in government.

As the late Christopher Hitchens said of this journalistic practice, opinion poll journalism “completely economizes on thought, on work, on reflection, on going out and talking to people. It’s all done; it does itself. It doesn’t require any effort, any thinking, or any real research.”

These words come to mind when I watch Chuck Todd and other talking heads and begin to imagine who should replace them in their seats: I think about investigative journalists like those who work for Vice News and risk their lives to show people what life is like in Kiev during anti-government protests or how the Islamic State overtakes a town, enforces shari’a, and indoctrinates children to hate the infidel.

I think about do-it-myself journalists like Tracie McMillan and Barbara Ehrenreich who live the life of the hungry and working poor and report on poverty in the same way that Michael Lewis and Matt Taibbi report on Wall Street’s machinations from the inside.

I think about the knowledgeable and articulate scholars and experts displaced by a rotating battalion of partisan pundits, pollsters, and political consultants and strategists who repeat the conventional wisdom, who speculate idly on partisan and personal branding campaigns and on elections dozens of months away, and who violate on a daily basis the very purpose of journalism: to report the facts, to present suppressed, neglected, or unconventional stories and ideas, and to tell people something they did not already know.

As citizens, this scandalous form of journalism is problematic enough, but for independents, it is especially troubling.

These oversimplified questions that appear on these polls are meant to set the terms of the debate: pollsters, establishment journalists, and politicians thrive on questions with binary responses (“Is the country headed in the right direction?” or “Are you better off now than you were 4 or 8 years ago?”). However, these questions wholly discourage independent or critical thought — just as the results do.

For instance, notice how, in the video above, Chuck Todd confidently concludes by stating (based on what 500 respondents have reported) that, “This is as if the public is saying, ‘hey buddy, your presidency is over. You may not believe it is, but your ability to lead and convince us that you have the right policies anymore, we’re not listening.’”

When this simplistic and ungeneralizable finding ricochets around the media, the conversation is no longer about what is or ought to be happening, but how the president or other politicians can improve their standing with the public — a kind of gossip that influential political websites, cable news shows, and even the more serious Sunday morning shows specialize in.

The best way to discourage this kind of lazy journalism is first to be aware of it; second, to boycott it (if not collectively, then personally); and finally, to collect information from a variety of sources and develop our own opinions and means of evaluating politicians and the country’s policies.

Join the discussion Please be relevant and respectful.

The Independent Voter Network is dedicated to providing political analysis, unfiltered news, and rational commentary in an effort to elevate the level of our public discourse.


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176 comments
Duncan Webb
Duncan Webb

The "media" in our country are just propaganda machines for the liberal and conservative cults. REAL journalism has been dead for quite some time.

Ed Markin
Ed Markin

As a research scientist I view these polls for what they are: a compilation of responses from a group of people who A) have nothing better to do than answer pollsters questions B) actually think the polls/questions will be faithfully calculated, interpreted and reported and C) think themselves qualified to express an opinion. In short, often unemployed, naive, self-centered types. This time next year Obama should be on every pollster's list! The only poll that counts is the last one in November and since dead folks and non citizens often vote even that one is suspect

Stephen Burdick
Stephen Burdick

Poll us so they know how to lie to us. Hahaha. Yep, pollsters can go F themselves

Carol Oliva
Carol Oliva

Media corrupt,and goverment corrupt!!

Sandy Kennedy
Sandy Kennedy

There is no such thing as unbiased reporting anymore the media has been bought and paid for!

Steve Young
Steve Young

Dump main stream media no honesty or integrity just a lot of deception with a spin

John Benkers
John Benkers

Opinion polls drive our propaganda machines for all candidates. Sadly, people believe they are equivalent to genuine research.

Marc J. Blanchette
Marc J. Blanchette

Media in U.S. is corrupted by money. Serious need for public unbiased reporting. The main reporters are losing all respect with their nonsense!

Phil Koenig
Phil Koenig

Real journalism is a pathetic joke when all news outlets are owned and controlled by the same 5 corporations that bought congress. It's stupid to pretend journalism still has any meaning.

Ruth Tobin
Ruth Tobin

Media Democrats, Obamas and the Democrats party have to be blamed for their assaults, riots, terrorists, burning the American flag that should be respected and protected from these people. These people don't love and respect this Country laws either!!!! Put them to jail. Abusers of America freedom and laws!!! This is not a assembling to protest against their views, this is bullying, intimidation, terrorists and harassment. As a Latina women and Christian loves Trump from Day one!!!! Disgraceful and shameful to see.

Mike Chial
Mike Chial

The media-political establishment-government industry is a tremendous wealth generator. But not for voters.

Ray Nelson
Ray Nelson

It's a zoo with no cages. Since repeal of the "Fairness Doctrine" in 1987, the crap presented has grown without bounds. For you who do not know, "The Fairness Doctrine" requires that (this is quoted) "a broadcaster to provide coverage of issues of public importance that is adequate and fairly reflects differing viewpoints and a broadcaster must provide free time for the presentation of opposing views if a paid sponsor is unavailable and must initiate programming on public issues if no one else seeks to do so."

David Fischer
David Fischer

Yellow journalism is not unique to these times, but today it's more subliminal. The fair and balanced is no more true than the word " News Program ", news has been replaced by opinions and commentary. Today we are unable to just be informed about events, but if it is propaganda worthy it will be a leading story. In this atmosphere we are misinformed and denied the whole truth if it interferes with the agenda of that so called "news sources". Yet our system allows these frauds and charlatans to assume credentials of the press.

Sandy Jacobs
Sandy Jacobs

As a county public official I have my share of bruises filled with otally erroneous

Gerald Hoke
Gerald Hoke

Most polls are conducted using East & West coast respondents, completely omitting the opinions of 2/3 of the country. I saw a recent article online that explained that, according to polls, Clinton & Trump are only 2%+/- apart - but that only 41% of the electorate support one or the other. That means that 59% of the electorate support neither - does that improve the chances of a third party?

Don Anderson
Don Anderson

We get what we buy. News has become a part of the entertainment industry. It's about profit. You buy advertisers products you drive the industry. It's about"I don't like her or him" and not about information.

Donna Laba
Donna Laba

That's why I don't watch network or cable news. They're as corrupt as our politicians.

Piortland Oryloff
Piortland Oryloff

Journalism is fact checking followed by confirmation of fact checking. Opinion only reaches the level of content and does not deserve serious consideration.

Ronald C Baker
Ronald C Baker

Truth and facts are not around anymore. It's all Agenda spin!

Derek Prado
Derek Prado

"I really like Bernie but I don't think he can win. We need to pull together to defeat this Trump maniac." TRUTH: "There is simply no downside to voting for Sanders during this month’s final Democratic primaries. There will be time to vote against Donald Trump in November. This is the time to vote FOR Sanders. Because of his huge national support among young and independent voters (two groups whose turnout is needed to win a presidential election), every poll shows Bernie easily beating Trump in November. Recent polls show that Bernie, unlike Hillary, will beat Trump in every swing state, and that his overall projected margins of victory are more than double Hillary’s. Clinton is projected to lose to Trump in several key swing states, and some also show her losing the entire election. Bernie wins by double digits. EVERYONE SHARE THIS because a lot of Clinton supporters keep telling sander supporters to give up and vote for her to fight trump but THIS is just a way for them to want a female president even though trump is beating her in polls #Bernie #sanders #junevote #californiaprimary #newmexicoprimary #montanaprimary #northdakotaprimary #southdakotaprimary #newjerseyprimary #californiavote #vote #sanders2016 #feelthebern #bernieorbust #supportsanders #hillary2016

Richard Mazrin
Richard Mazrin

Don't believe any of them! Party biased! All BS.

Troy Stutzman
Troy Stutzman

This is one of the disturbing outcomes of 90% of US media being owned by 6 major corporations. The opinions being reported must first pass muster w/ the corporate gate keepers. If it doesn't suit their interests it doesn't air. If it does those that aired it will soon be out of a job...

David S. Inman
David S. Inman

Sanders has the democratic party and some of the republican party too,oh yes and don't forget the independents.IF WE GET SANDERS IN THE RACE, IN THE PIG FU-KER PARTY HE WOULD BEAT HILLARY AND TRUMP! WITH HIS INDEPENDENT ,GREEN, REPUBLICAN ,AND DEMOCRATIC PARTY'S MEMBERS THAT WANT TO VOTE FOR HIM ,HE IS THE WINNER! HORSE FU-KER OR PIG FU-KER PARTY IT DOES NOT MATTER HE CAN BEAT THE REPUBLICAN AND DEMOCRAT PARTY AT THE SAME TIME WITH THE AMOUNT OF AMERICANS THAT SEE THE NEED FOR SANDERS 2016 !HE MUST BE IN THE RACE !

Jean Duranko
Jean Duranko

The media is telling you who to vote for! F them!

Wade Wilkinson
Wade Wilkinson

Corporate Media TV stations are owned by the wealthy 1%. All they care about is making their profits by maintaining the Status Quo. They'll obviously do or say anything to attempt to influence the poor Saps that buy into their lies..

Mike Mindel
Mike Mindel

How much of the strikes and protests in France, that have been going on for weeks have you seen on the media. I was in Germany, Austria and Hungary last week and it wasn't covered there either. Nothing that doesn't fit the "austerity" world view is covered by major media.

Kevin Lessenberry
Kevin Lessenberry

I do not watch the news Media anymore Except the Weather - Fed up with them

Paul Riebschlager
Paul Riebschlager

Journalists r supposed to make the politician squirm in their seat. Not offer them soft fluffy questions

Sara Burns
Sara Burns

...and relies on an unreliable assumption that people answer truthfully to political polls. In my protest to political polls being published before votes are in I make it a practice to never answer a poll question honestly.

Paula Cusumano DeRoo
Paula Cusumano DeRoo

Ratings talk. If people keep watching, listening to, reading the opinions of pundits, they'll keep putting them out there. The media is just like any other business. Its sole purpose is to turn a profit, not do what's right.

Rob Dietrich
Rob Dietrich

I wonder how we can fix this? Your thoughts?

Michael Eldridge
Michael Eldridge

The most honest post I will read today its the advertisers who win every election think about it

Brenda Fallos
Brenda Fallos

Propaganda 24/7 the very best fake news you can get!!

Judy Charbonneau Van Buren
Judy Charbonneau Van Buren

Media these days are not impartial and reporting the news, they push for their own personal choices. I am sure people who have passed are just shaking their heads up in heaven at the way the media has treated this election season, no non-partisan reporting. No equal time for the candidates. It's more about the money of a media corporation than reporting the truth.

Dean Sliger
Dean Sliger

Very true. Typically all a poll or survey does is give you a demographic view of the people being surveyed -- for instance, instead of "most Americans" it's really just "most people who happen to be home and answering the phone at 3pm on a weekday."

Eddie Grey
Eddie Grey

Public opinion journalism, aka propaganda, is what keeps everyone focused on the two least respected presidential nominees ever. Very seldom are Jill Stein or Gary Johnson given any publicity. Establishment only backs the establishment.

Larry Johnson
Larry Johnson

Well it if wasn't for constant media coverage, neither Bernie or Trump would be a candidate. They are the creation of the media

William Donaldson
William Donaldson

Polls are easily manipulated,just poll the constituency that proves your point,the media in America has lost it's way,owned by conglomerates,with an biased opinion.

Ben Hardin
Ben Hardin

“The only votes that matter these days are those of consumers voting with their dollars.” Your comment reminds me of my idea posted May 7 on Electoral Reform for a More Favorable Congress concerning a stigma on candidates who seek out huge campaign chests. The first paragraph: "Stemming the rising amount of campaign financing for presidential races is almost a lost cause but encouraging small donor financing of congressional races would surely increase voter attention toward congressional races. The plan to do so described below is designed to stigmatize congressional candidates who garner obscenely large amounts of campaign funding."

Richard Stanfield
Richard Stanfield

AMERICA VOYTE REPUBLICAN TUESDAY, WE DO NOT NEED 8 MORE YEARS OF SLIMMY SLEEZY KING OBAMA.

Ray Quintana
Ray Quintana

Most Americans tune to news that affirms their beliefs. They don't care if it is twisted truths, half truths or out and out lies. Most Americans will not take the time to look at a news source or its agenda. They won't take the time time to do a little extra research. The media knows this.