It used to be that lazy journalists only used polls during election season, now they have just extended the election season so they can be lazy year round. Anyone with a brain knows that numbers can be interpreted many different ways, polling methodologies are vastly different and the margin of error is an important little detail that hardly gets spoken of. Having studied communications research for my masters degree, it drives me nuts to see lazy journalists spouting off about polls when they really have no clue about it. The thing that really drives me nuts is when the margin of error is +/- 4.7% or something close to that. That is a 9.4% swing……uh, that leaves a lot of wiggle room in how people really feel. When the margin of error gets closer to +/- 3%, then you are getting closer to being accurate, but you still have a 6% swing and when journalists or politicians make a claim like “the American people want this….” and they are using figures like 53% for 47% against, well then it’s really a toss up, right?
So if 53% believe one thing or another, do the 47% not matter at all. “The American people want….”, as soon as they make that claim, the minority of 47% or 49% for that matter become invisible. It is much more nuanced than that and for journalists to use those figures to exclude people or marginalize them is just plain wrong. People aren’t numbers, they live and breathe and are affected by decisions, whether they are in the majority or minority. Sometimes the minority need representation too, if we are to claim to be a civilized society.
The whole idea of polling the American public constantly as if we govern by referendum is a bastardization of our political system. There are a lot of reasons why our founding fathers formed our system of government the way they did. I think the health care issue is a prime example of why we don’t rule by referendum. People who have health care and are happy with it, shouldn’t have the power to prevent those who don’t have it from getting it. In this case, the minority needs representation, needs advocates that can represent their interests.
I also have a problem with poll questions that ask the public to be political analysts. Questions like “Do you think the president will win re-election in 2012?”. To be honest, I don’t really give a shit what the mostly uninformed public think might happen in 2 and 1/2 years. Who fucking cares? What purpose does that question serve other than as a crutch for a lazy journalist to spin it the way they want just to get an easy story or soundbite? It’s bad enough having to listen to paid political analysts who spout bullshit and are never accountable for being wrong, now we have to listen to even less informed opinions from people who are watching the Kardashians and American Idle in their spare time.
I have to wonder why polling organizations don’t use bigger samples, the technology allows for it? If they were to get samples of even 2000 instead of the standard 700 – 900 people, they could give much more accurate numbers (I still argue that it doesn’t matter when not near an election). If they had a larger sample, when they break it down into sub groups, those numbers would be more accurate as well. Example, of the Republicans responding to this question, 45% believed this or that. Well, once you start breaking out these numbers, the accuracy drops considerably. But that doesn’t stop journalists from using those inaccurate numbers to bolster there slant on the subject. It gives cover to lazy journalists.
I guess it is futile for me to bitch about it, journalists aren’t going to change and in fact are probably only going to get worse. They’ve been getting away with it for years and have taken it to a whole new level. Hell, Morning Joe on MSNBC wouldn’t have anything to talk about if they didn’t have the latest poll results.