The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Gallup snafu - with trust in the media poll!

One of the benefits and curses of the net is that there is a certain range of facts that are just checkable (eg, the Major League Baseball games on tonight). Nothing worthy of the name research required. There are other sorts of facts which it is God's own job to track down (eg the increase in unit labour cost in Belgium in 1983). You get a feel for what category a particular fact is likely to fall into.

The esteemed polling organisation founded by Dr George Gallup would, one would have thought, be rather keen on checking at least all the easily checked facts in its publications. Apparently, one would be wrong.

It has a piece today on its latest polling on perceptions of the US media. The angle of the piece is the consistent finding over the last few years that around 45% of Americans think the media is too liberal, whilst only 15% think it too conservative.

Further down, it reports on the latest results for an established question:
In general, how much trust and confidence do you have in the mass media -- such as newspapers, T.V. and radio -- when it comes to reporting the news fully, accurately, and fairly -- a great deal, a fair amount, not very much, or none at all?

It provides a chart covering the 70s and (with a break) the late 90s up to date. Numbers for May 1972, April 1974 and June 1976 show those in the first two categories outpolling those in the second two by around 70:30 (the later figures weaved around a 50:50 split),

On the 70's, it says
About 7 in 10 Americans said they had a great deal or fair amount of trust and confidence in the media in 1972, 1974, and 1976, perhaps reflecting public approval of the news media's role in uncovering the Watergate abuses of power.

I assume this article was the subject of some kind of editing: what thought, I wonder, went through the mind of the individual responsible?

Cutting to the chase, according to this timeline the first piece referencing the Watergate break-ins was in the WaPo of June 18 1972. The first break-in took place on May 28.

So how, deleting expletives, could
uncovering the Watergate abuses of power
possibly have had any influence on the views of those polled in May 1972?

By April 1974, it was a different story with the Watergate coverage. But the valiant work of Woodward and Bernstein and their colleagues in the interim had moved the public's confidence in the media by one lousy percentage point! I'd be fairly certain that that's within the statistical margin for error. It could even be (within that self-same margin) that, after all that Pulitzer Prize-worthy work, the ungrateful bastards had less confidence in the media than two years earlier.

The point is that this is not a mere typo, but - if the timeline is right - a fundamental misunderstanding of the state of confidence in the media in the early 70s, and the reasons underlying it. One might speculate that it was the Vietnam War that was the proximate issue dominating thinking on the matter - particularly for liberals. The Pentagon Papers farrago was not long over. The Credibility Gap characterised a swathe of opinion on the integrity of USG. The press might be said to have had - since Tet, at least - a good war in terms of challenging USG on the conduct of the war, and policy for extricating the country from it.

That would just be speculation. But at least it wouldn't be flat out wrong!

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