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lying facts

There’s something wrong with polling today, according to David Moore, former senior editor for Gallup Poll for 13 years. In The Opinion Makers, Moore claims pollsters don’t repeat public opinion, as most people believe, they manufacture it.

As I was covering the recent election, I found myself reporting poll results almost daily – sometimes several polls a day. It was amazing to me how we could rely on these results, which varied so widely from poll-to-poll and day-to-day, as public opinion.

“Media polls give us distorted readings of the electoral climate, manufacture a false public consensus on policy issues, and in the process undermine American democracy,” Moore says.

Moore’s writing is succinct, witty and incredibly interesting – especially given the recent election.

For instance, I never knew pollsters usually exclude Alaska and Hawaii in polls because of their time zones and small populations. (Which means Pres.-elect Obama’s home state didn’t participate in many of the recent polls)

And pollsters don’t take into account respondents’ ignorance on subjects.

“News media polls typically gloss over public ignorance and apathy, and instead, through the use of forced-choice questions, squeeze some type of answer out of virtually all respondents – with typically only a small percentage who volunteer that they know too little to express and opinion.” Pollsters are treating these responses as serious judgments

This is an issue overlooked by many news agencies. An issue many Americans aren’t even aware of. We all take polls at face value.

“The problem lies not in the declining response rates and increasing difficulty in obtaining representative samples, though these are issues the polling industry has to address. The crisis lies, rather, in the refusal of media polls to tell the truth about those surveyed and about the larger electorate. Rather than tell us the ‘essential facts’ about the public… they feed us a fairy-tale picture of a completely rational, all-knowing, and fully engaged citizenry.”

Moore’s book is so captivating because it relates to current issues and events: the Iraq war, presidential elections, the troop surge, Guantanamo Bay, children’s health insurance and abortion.

He notes that the problem with telling the truth about public opinion is that it’s not news that large proportions of voters are undecided or that many Americans have no strong opinion on an issue.

“[Pollsters] studiously avoid reporting on widespread public apathy, indecision, and ignorance. The net result is conflicting poll results and a distortion of public opinion that challenges the credibility of the whole polling enterprise. Nowhere is this more often the case than in election polling.”

“Eventually, the many conflicting and nonsensical results should shame pollsters and the news media into reform. Only if that happens will polls achieve their ideal role in the democratic process – telling the truth about the public, warts and all.”

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“lying facts”