Poll-driven press

Focus-group journalism may look fair, but it's just laziness

Issue: "Politics Post 9/11," Nov. 17, 2001

If you've been wondering what the climate is out there among the American public, here are two common mistakes to avoid: Be careful when you listen to those who are overly precise, and be careful as well with those who over-generalize. The news media are full of both.

The overly precise reports typically come from the pollsters. They tell you that 87.426 percent of the American public are supportive of President Bush in his conduct of the war against terrorists, provided appropriate input from the leaders of the European Union has been taken into account and the Powell doctrine of overwhelming force is being observed. Oh, yes; the poll is significant only on the Thursday evening on which it was taken, and the figure comes with a 3-point margin of error.

When you pay too much attention to the pollsters, you fall victim to what is called the fallacy of false precision. Those decimal points in the publicized figures lull you into thinking you know more than you really do. The pollsters may well have been honest and diligent in all their work-but a total reality is always a good bit more complex than just one small slice. So be wary when you read the polls.

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Be careful too when the media parade "typical citizen groups" by you. Such groupings these days have a tendency to come from Denver or Des Moines or Dallas-I guess because they're all cities from the central part of the country, and therefore supposedly free from the biases of those who live closer to the coasts. Such groups usually include 8-12 adults of all shapes, genders, sizes, colors, and outlooks, designed to look like a perfectly representative picture of the total public. Give the people themselves a chance to tell us what they think, the journalists seem to be saying, and show everyone in the process just how unbiased and objective we reporters are.

The problem, of course, is that such groups really represent no one but themselves. Kick out the present group of 8-12 citizens and invite in the next one, and you might get exactly the same mix, or you might get a totally different slant on the same discussion. On the one hand, the use of such groups tends toward shoddy journalism simply because readers and listeners are rarely told how the groups were chosen in the first place. But on the other hand, even if the participants are chosen on a totally casual or random basis-which I tend to think they probably are-that tends to make matters even worse. For you have to ask yourself: What significance does such a group have? Why waste your time listening to folks who mean so little?

In logical terms, paying too much attention to such groups trips you up on the fallacy of converse accident-a deceit that persuades you that whatÕs true of a small part is also true of the whole.

I'm not saying polls and focus groups are useless. Both have their places in sorting out and analyzing what the public thinks. From time to time, we use both approaches in various aspects of our work here at WORLD magazine.

But polling and focus groups have come to play too large a role in the practice of journalism itself. Newspapers, magazines, and networks fill up way too much of their content with ultimately meaningless reflections of what their readers and listeners think.

The media do it partly because it's so easy. Throwing together a collage of a dozen opinions takes little more than the ability to grab a quote here from Mrs. A (representing the 53 percent majority), introducing the next quote by saying that Mr. B disagreed vigorously (he represents the 40 percent minority), and then noting that Ms. C (who speaks for the 7 percent who are undecided) came down somewhere in between. Presto! An article. No hard research. No need to go find an expert. No need even to figure out who the experts are.

The media do it as well because it looks so even-handed and fair. It is politically correct. Elitist experts have been discarded. Readers and listeners are flattered because common people (who know no more than they do) have now taken center stage and become the subject of the story.

The media do it as well because there really is an appetite for it. It is a sad picture of our age that readers and listeners seem every bit as intrigued with themselves as they are with the real story.

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