Phrases like “The majority of Americans believe…” or “The president’s approval rating…” have become such a standard in political news that we, as news consumers, no longer even question their latent meanings. Measures of public opinion used in the news are easily accepted at face value, but who are these Americans that support assault weapons bans or that disapprove of the president’s performance? No one ever asked my opinion, so how could these numbers possibly reflect the sentiment of the entire American public?
It’s the responsibility of large polling companies like Gallup and Rasmussen to condense the ideas and opinions of the American population into easily digestible statistics. But, before the number crunching can even begin, hired pollsters must laboriously call up thousands of American families and ask them to participate in their surveys. Without their work, the concept of “public opinion” exists only in the abstract. We know that every individual has his or her own opinion, but there is no way of evaluating them all on a macro-scale without polling. Pollsters are not producers of information; they merely collect existing information. They also cannot be considered packagers of information—the process of packaging occurs later on when the raw data is distilled into facts and figures.
The work of pollsters is invisible because information consumers are only interested in the final product. We are interested in aggregate information, and each unit of data is meaningless to us on its own. For example, knowing that Bill in Ohio supports the auto bailout is much less interesting than knowing that 60% of blue collar manufacturers in Ohio support the auto bailout. Furthermore, it is very easy to overlook the work of pollsters because poll numbers are presented in the news without any information as to how the data was collected. For the curious news consumer, details about the polling process are available—but, reading about the methodology is akin to reading the fine print on a gift certificate or the terms and conditions on a contract.
History has shown us that overlooking polling methods can produce disastrous results. Just ask poor Robert Langdon who lost to FDR in the 1936 election even after Literary Digest magazine polls predicted that Langdon would win in a landslide. The error was a result of poor polling technique: Pollsters used car registrations and phone books to find respondents which produced a sample of wealthy, conservative voters.
Many information consumers rely on polling numbers to shape their own opinions and actions: Citizens may use a candidate’s popularity in the polls as a way to determine their vote. Candidates, on the other hand, use polling numbers to make strategy decisions and place boundaries on their possible policy stances. Therefore, we need to look beyond the numbers in order to fully understand their meaning.
One of the biggest advantages of using the Internet to consume news is its speed. We no longer have to wait until the 6:30 evening news broadcast to know what happened that day. Now, news hits the web almost instantaneously. The faster information flies, the less time we take to comprehend it, and it’s easy to become passive news consumers. There are many layers beneath a Gallup percentage, and peeling back those layers can help us become more knowledgeable and critical consumers.
1. Hurricane Sandy brought the 2012 campaign to a standstill as both Obama and Romney changed their tune, speaking about unity and assisting each other in times of turmoil. In a rare moment of bipartisanship, Republican Governor Chris Christie who has endorsed Romney, praised President Obama’s leadership in the hurricane’s aftermath. It seems that this country can only speak with a collective voice when we’ve been struck with tragedy. In a campaign that has been all about personal attacks and manipulated half-truths, it was nice to hit the pause button on the negativity. But, it is truly a shame that it takes a disaster of such magnitude to bring together people from across an aisle that has slowly been growing into a chasm.
2. What does it mean to win the Nobel Peace Prize today? It used to award individuals who made noteworthy strides to promote peace including humanitarians like Mother Teresa and Aung San Suu Kyi. In 2009, however, it was awarded to President Obama barely a year into his term—a move that was criticized by many as premature. This year, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the European Union despite the fact that it is deadlocked in one of the most heated debt crises in history. So has the Nobel Peace Price changed from an award that recognizes peace into a tool to urge people and institutions to adopt peaceful strategies?
Hard news is an endangered species, and the scariest part is that no one seems to notice.
It used to be that, if you wanted to find out what was going on in the world, your choices were limited. Either you turned on the TV and watched one of three network news stations or you opened up this antiquated object (maybe you’ve heard of it) called a newspaper. These days, we’re drowning in a sea of information. In the age of new media, there are so many outlets for information dissemination that anyone with an Internet connection can broadcast their opinions. Open a web browser, and ideas are pelted helter-skelter at you. And with the ongoing 24 hour news cycle, you literally do have to live in a cave in order to miss out. But we can have too much of a good thing, and information is no exception.
As our media options multiply, the line between hard-hitting journalism and the opining of talking heads becomes ever blurrier. Instead of tuning into the NBC Nightly News or watching CNN, we’re more likely to listen to our favorite TV personalities whether it be Jon Stewart or Rachel Maddow. But here’s the thing: What these guys do ISN’T NEWS. They’re merely drawing upon the work of hard news reporters and offering their personal spin on the facts. It’s entertaining, but more than that, it’s cheap to produce and rakes in big bucks. Audiences would rather watch a raving mad, spittle flying Bill O’Reilly rant for an hour than a liveshot from behind enemy lines in Syria.
The news media is a tricky thing. It provides an invaluable resource for uninformed citizens, but at the same time, it’s a profit-driven machine as well. Ultimately, it’s up to the viewer to decide the fate of journalism.
When I look into your eyes
I tend to lose my thoughts
Don’t forget your stare
Oh what was that you said
Would you let me know
‘Cause I can’t read your mind
Oh can you tell
I can’t even explain
Oh baby I can’t even explain
What am I supposed to do
It’s hard to stay cool
When you smile at me
And I get nervous every time you speak
1. During one of our thesis meetings, I introduced him to Thought Catalog. He was thoroughly intrigued.
“Ooh, 25 Things I’ve Learned In My 20s…what did I learn? (reading) ‘You’re going to puke in public. It’s fine. No one cares. Just puke.’ Hm, interesting.”
2. (in class, talking about campaign finance)
“But the thing is, these campaign finance laws are very fuzzy…like my cat.”
In his office, all the walls are bare except for a single picture of his orange tabby cat.
3. “I never liked dogs. It’s probably because I have traumatic memories of when I was a child riding my bike and getting chased by a giant pitbull…”