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   Poll Finds Major Polls Distort Results by How They Frame Questions


Poll Finds Major Polls Distort Results by How They Frame Questions

by Marc Sapir, M.D.

Background knowledge, or its absence, contributes to particular political views. This can help explain inconsistencies in poll respondents’ answers. Yet the media, aware of this problem, choose to ignore it when reporting “poll results.”
When Americans hear specific provisions of the USA Patriot Act, they oppose the intrusions of this law into their civil rights by wide margin (average 77 percent). Yet when asked what impact the War on Terrorism is having upon civil rights, many of the same people say it’s “strengthening” or having “no impact” upon their rights (57 percent).

This inner confusion and conflict is clearly exemplified by a 37-year-old woman from Udora, Kansas who rejects each of three provisions of the Patriot Act mentioned in the poll and also opposes the use of torture, other outlawed forms of coercion and lengthy prison detention without trial; she also supports a requirement that the US must prove accusations against other nations before attacking them.

However, when asked each of the following two questions: “Should the US support international efforts to prosecute war crimes?” and “Should the US make war against Iraq or other countries the government accuses of supporting terrorism when they are not attacking anyone?,” this same Kansan hesitated and replied: “I’m confused. What is Bush for? I want to do whatever Bush wants. I want to support the President.” One might think that the media would be fascinated with and want to study this contradictory phenomenon.

Were the interviewer to point out to our respondent from Kansas that most of her heartfelt responses are in direct opposition to the stated policies and behaviors of the Bush administration, it is quite possible she might change her responses to conform to the needs of Mr. Bush. Nevertheless, allowed to give her own views on these matters, Ms. Kansas did, and millions of other Americans would, without knowing it, isolate Mr. Bush (for his actions) as the pariah he seems to be to much of the world.

Using a methodology that investigates people’s background knowledge on subjects before asking their opinions, Retro Poll compares each person’s answers to different but related questions. This allows an assessment of the extent to which background knowledge, or its absence, contributes to particular political views in the sample.

Retro Poll’s premise is that media and mainstream polling organizations are almost certainly aware of this contradiction, yet they are doing little to investigate or expose the factors that cause Americans to be so conflicted. In fact, by reporting overly simplified data that shows people in support of the War on Terrorism, the War on Iraq and the President, they hide this confusion, and they conceal the resistance to unprovoked war and loss of our civil rights observed in our polls.

In an earlier poll taken in September 2002, Retro Poll found that 43 percent of those giving their opinion believed that Iraq and Saddam Hussein worked with the Al Qaeda terrorists although a suppressed CIA report and the UN had found no such evidence. The current poll asked a slightly different question: whether there is “evidence that Saddam Hussein worked with the 9-11 terrorists,” 40 percent said yes and 36 percent no. Since September, government officials and media pundits have logged hundreds of appearances to bolster this contrived connection. Yet no hard evidence to contradict the CIA report has been published.

There is a powerful correlation (p=.005) between knowledge on this issue and rejection of war. In the previous poll, people who said there is no evidence of a link between Saddam and Al Qaeda were 4:1 against war, while those who said there was evidence were 2:1 for the war. In the current poll the same correlation remains significant. Those who think there is clear evidence are 2.2:1 for the war, and those who challenge this assertion remain opposed (although now at 60 percent against war compared with 80 percent in the earlier poll).

Retro Poll also explored the issue of a “climate of fear in the US.” Sixty-one percent of those polled agreed that there is a climate of fear. That group was then given six items to rate as contributing “much, some, little or none” to that climate of fear. These items included: “specific terrorist threats and actions; government homeland security alerts; media hype and exaggerations; failure to catch Osama Bin Laden; poor relations with other nations such as N. Korea; Saddam Hussein and Iraq; and failure to find the American anthrax killer.”

Surprisingly, “media hype” was ranked as causing “much” fear by more people than any other category (57 percent vs. 53 percent for “specific terrorist threats and actions” in second place). When the “much” or “some” responses were combined for each of the six items the respondents ranked the major causes of fear as follows: Terrorist actions (85 percent); media hype (83 percent); failure to catch Bin Laden (77 percent); homeland security alerts (73 percent); poor relations with other nations (71 percent); Saddam (71 percent); the anthrax attacker (65 percent). With the media ranking up as high as actual terrorists as a cause of fearfulness, the poll provides evidence that the public is very suspicious of the way that TV and other media process and manipulate information.

The Retro Poll showed that the pillar of support for war on Iraq and also the abuse of US civil rights is the 40 percent of the public that do not perceive that Bush, Rumsfeld, Powell and their advisors have used the media in an extensive disinformation campaign—including claims of an Iraqi threat from weapons of mass destruction and connections to the 9-11 terrorists. Support for war therefore relates to the mass media’s failure to challenge the Bush administration’s assertions about threats to US security.

The Retro Poll reached 215 people from 46 states between April 5 and 20 using college student volunteers. Individual poll questions have an error margin of 7 percent, but correlations of the responses to different questions are certain beyond 99 percent. For more details, visit

Dr. Sapir is president of Retro Poll.

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This story was published on July 12, 2003.
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