June 1, 2009

What do polls mean?

Journalists love to cite polling data.
  • Candidate A is up 5 points. Candidate B is down 6 points.
  • A majority of American people think Issue A is good but a growing number say it is bad.
  • A minority of people think Such and Such should be enacted as law
  • Etc.
These are all examples of basic stories about polling. The data discussed is all geared to the idea that what the people think matters when developing and implementing policy.

And in the United States and other democracies, that is indeed the case.

So why then should we care about what people in dictatorships think about us?

Marc Lynch (the author of the blog Abu Aardvark) discusses the issue that polling data of the population in Arab countries matters very little: Paint By The Numbers.

And I tend to agree with him.

Look at this line:
"The realities of authoritarian states with pervasive intelligence
apparatuses, where self-censorship is a well- ingrained survival
, make it less likely that individuals will offer honest
opinions on sensitive topics. The absence of reliable census data in
many countries, often for political reasons, poses challenges for
pollsters trying to create reliable frames for random sampling."

"In addition, polling in America aims to measure opinion in advance of
elections – where attitudes are ultimately converted into outcomes.
Nothing similar exists in most of the authoritarian Arab countries,
where public opinion does not easily translate into changes in the
political arena
. This helps to explain the regionwide alienation from
and apathy toward national institutions found in the surveys themselves
– one recent survey of Jordanians found that only four per cent had a
positive view of their Parliament."

(Boldface and italic mine.)

So why should we care that the latest Gallup Poll shows greater approval of the US leadership in some Arab countries?

The only real reason we should be interested in this is because the desires of a government not elected with a real mandate from the population often goes off in ways opposite the views of the public. (While in the US there may be differences in what the government does, we have a remedy called regular elections. When was the last time the House of Saud was voted out of power?)

The polls can indicate grassroots support for a US or European policy while the rulers go the other way. This can offer moral support to a plan -- and deal with the "Arab street" issue -- but the polls are meaningless unless put into context.

And context, context, context has always been a keystone of good journalism.

So why, do we just see a reporting of the numbers of polls from around the world about what the US is doing or not doing and without context.

A poll from Europe about the favorable or unfavorable actions of a US president can and do translate into real political action by democratically elected governments.

A similar poll in a dictatorship -- China or Saudi Arabia -- means little in influencing government policy. Unless there is such wide gap between what the rulers and the ruled think. Slight differences mean nothing in real-politik.

Poll stories need to have the context so readers/viewers/listeners can better understand what the numbers mean. And the stories need to explain the circumstances of the poll taking in less than democratic loving countries. (See the above pull quote on self-censorship.)

Yet we don't see it in the reporting of today.


I don't know.

Maybe the reporters and editors don't really understand the subtle nature of polling. Maybe they think a poll in China is the same as a poll in the States. What ever the reason, explanations are not given and the news consumer is denied enough information to make an intelligent assessment of the events.

No comments: