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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Thursday, September 23, 2004

After post-Rathergate wailing, some actual journalism spikes a Conventional Wisdom

Enough with the why, oh why stories! (Pull up the last couple of days of Romenesko, and you're knee-deep in Moaning Minnies and Dismal Jimmies bemoaning how their once-noble profession (ha!) has been brought low. Ahistorical bollocks, of course.)

From the enterprising Devon Largio [1] and her supervisor at UIUC Scott Althaus, a nice little piece of research which rather puts the kibosh [2] on the CW that the misperception amongst US voters that Saddam was involved in the 9/11 attacks came about as a result of USG propaganda.

By charting polling results against the frequencies of mentions of Saddam and Osama bin Laden in AP stories, and Bush pronouncements, on the war on terror, they suggest a distinct lack of correlation.

Voters, it seems, were willing from shortly after the attacks to contemplate Saddam involvement (though UBL was prime suspect), whereas the profile of Saddam's association with the WOT in AP/Bush came much later. The polling numbers show a small but steady decline in voters' belief of a Saddam connection, despite the propaganda onslaught.

They suggest artefacts at work in the polling: though initial polling asked open questions on views on those responsible for 9/11, later polls asked closed questions, naming individuals; and most polls did not allow a gradation of responses.

If the question of Saddam's responsibility was put directly to respondents, it was too tempting to deny; and, though most laid primary responsibility on bin Laden, a minority saw Saddam as providing some sort of assistance.

The fallibility of polls is hot right now, of course [3] - and I'd have been interested to see the psychology explored. For instance, in the UK in the 1992 general election, we had the phenomenon of the spiral of silence - where polls were skewed in favour of the Labour Party because a tranche of voters were ashamed to admit to pollsters that they were going to vote for John Major's deeply unfashionable Conservatives.

Given the post-9/11 climate of fear and conformism in the US, one wouldn't be surprised to see a similar phenomenon in polling numbers on terrorism.

  1. Her thesis (discussed here on June 14) on the various USG rationales for war has now been taken up by John Kerry, no less.

  2. The text (PDF).

    First readings can be deceptive; I don't discount the possibility of a fatal flaw in the logic. Caveat lector, as always.

  3. A useful Wall Street Journal piece (Divergent Opinion Polls Reflect New Challenges to Tracking Vote) elucidates to some extent.

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