Voters were no longer the subjects of politics, democratic citizens deciding the fate of their country. They were objects to be counted, studied, and counted again. The proliferation of polls had allowed almost any newspaper or televisions station in the nation to measure the feelings of any population. Measurement, not democratic debate, was becoming the stuff of American politics.
— E.J. Dionne “The Illusion of Technique” in Media Polls in American Politics (1992)
The wire service AFP reports that a poll published at the end of June finds the French have a pretty high opinion of the United States, but they don’t like immigrants or Islam. The headline in the French daily Midi Libre states: “Sondage : la “famille” plébiscitée, “immigrés” et “islam” massivement rejetés” (Poll: Acclaim for the “Family”, “Immigrants” and “Islam” massively rejected.”
Those cheese eating surrender monkeys really like us, they really like us (to mix Simpsons and Sally Fields metaphors). But how is this news?
A survey carried out in late June by the CSA polling agency for Atlantico (a French news site akin to the Daily Beast or Huffington Post) measured likes and dislikes on a scale of very positive, somewhat positive, somewhat negative, very negative. Phrases like family, liberty, equality and tradition received high marks while the US was viewed with higher regard than the EU.
Les Etats-Unis évoquent quelque chose de positif pour 67 % des sondés, soit 14 points de plus que l’Union européenne (53 % positif)
Those phrases that registered the highest negative responses were Islam, immigrants, globalization and trade unions. While 67 percent of those surveyed had a positive view of America, only 19 percent had a positive view of Islam. AFP reports that Islam was the sole religion included in the good/bad survey.
Les mots recueillant le plus de désapprobation sont “islam” à 81 % (dont 38 % “assez négatif” et 43 % “très négatif”), “immigrés” à 69 % (41+28) suivis de “mondialisation” à 63 % (44+19) et “syndicats” à 61 % (40+21). Aucune autre religion n’est soumise aux sondés, ni la notion de religion en général.
Which leads to the question, what value does this have as news? What is the value of reporting on polls? And, how do you report on polls?
Knowledge of popular sentiment is essential for product marketing as well as politics. But without an explanation of the why, the numbers generated in a poll have slight value.
What do the French mean when they say Islam? Is it the religion or the faith’s practitioners that are unpopular? Are immigrants interchangeable with Islam in the French mind? Has this view changed over time? Would a poll that included the Catholic Church generate high negatives if asked at the height of the press frenzy surrounding the clergy abuse scandal? Is the conflict in Syria and the fear of French jihadis returning home spiking the numbers?
Context is king. And without context these scores are as meaningful as the daily horoscope.
How then should a wire service report on the results of such a poll and be faithful to the tenets of classical journalism?
Ignoring the story is not the answer nor is spinning the results. After the facts are stated and the reporter has his say in the lede, polling articles should provide the context of who is asking the question (what are their motives or reputation), what were the words of the question, and if this question has been asked in the past how have the results changed?
The AFP story tells us the positive image of America has risen by 28 points since a similar poll was taken in 2007. But does this tell the reader anything? Can this be interpreted to mean President Obama’s administration is that much more popular than President Bush’s?
Is the negative reaction to Islam driven by an upsurge in Catholicism or secularism? Is it a reaction to the problem of un-assimilated immigrants from Muslim majority lands? How do France’s Muslim leaders interpret these findings? Is this a question of religion, race or culture?
There are fascinating tidbits of information in this story, but without context they serve to reinforce what the reader brings to the story. Some will see racism in these findings, others will see failed policies of assimilation, others a return to Catholic or Secular France.
What is really happening? We are not told.