Signs and Polls

June 1, 1995

“Sign, sign, everywhere a sign….”, remember the 60’s song. A protest against the glut of signs dictating human behavior. Now it’s the 90’s and we still have all those signs. But we also have something else assaulting our minds.. “Poll, poll, everywhere a poll.” Not a day now goes by without someone, somewhere releasing another poll. In the most simplistic form it’s a report of pro, con, and undecided on a specific issue. Many are political, most irrelevant. There’s a poll for this, a poll for that, even polls for this AND that. Every special interest group and politician in the country uses polls to strengthen their cause. Network news can no longer survive without releasing nightly the results of their own latest poll.
They’re all supposedly unbiased, objective and representative of what Americans think. Even if they are, they’re doing more damage to American society than any military takeover ever could. America may have been founded on the principal of individual freedoms combining to form a cohesive society, but if she ever falls polls will certainly have contributed. Why??? Because by their very nature polls are divisive. They attempt to illustrate the mind of America, they delineate us into camps. A sizable number of America is now employed full time doing nothing more than polling. And there’s nothing more than a controversial poll, for that in itself spawns other polls. Take the O.J. trial, (PLEASE take the O.J. trial). It wasn’t enough to just poll America and ask “Do you think O.J. is guilty or innocent?” No that was too boring. The news media than had to delve into how blacks and whites felt. The very same people who won’t say the “N” word, and show contempt for Johnny Cochran, saw nothing wrong with developing polls that could do nothing else but divide America along racial lines. Blacks say whites don’t understand, whites say blacks are just whining and can’t stand to see one of their own fall. Scientifically, the polls are correct, there is a vast difference among whites and blacks on the issue. But sociologically it is devastating. It’s bad enough we have stereotypes and personal racist tendencies (both blacks and whites), but to plaster it day after day after day on television screens across the country, just reinforces those stereotypes.
You see, us humans are a funny lot. We respond differently to different stimuli. Example, ask 100 people if they favor the death penalty and you’ll get pretty close to a 50/50 split. Ask those same 100 if they would send the person who killed there spouse to the electric chair and you get totally different numbers. The key to any poll and its results is the topic itself and how the questions on that topic are asked. You can even get different results by asking the same questions to the same people but asking them in different order!
Allright Caldwell, so what’s the problem? Polls can be skewed for specific agendas and many really don’t say anything, why should we worry? We should worry, because the public mass will not take the time to know the facts. It takes specialized education in statistics and detailed information on how the poll was structured to determine if it is really significant. The majority of Americans don’t have that education and there’s not enough time in a 22 minute national newscast to discuss a poll’s methodology. Just enough time to report the often “startling” results without proper clarification. Polls herd us like cattle into the pens which we most readily identify. They are manipulative and dangerous. The power of television is undisputed. (Look at the impact on the Vietnam War) Combine that with a daily dose of divisive polls and society itself begins to be manipulated by the very polls it supposedly is only responding to. Remember, society is not picking the topics, it is a select few who determine what subject is polled and how those results are reported.
In less then 30 years we have gone from a society that got its news from objective, both sides newspaper reporting, complete with analysis to electronic junkies forming opinions from 30 second sound bites and the latest national poll. If the trend isn’t stopped, we’ll wind up with a country of mindless morons marching to the results of the latest poll. Don’t believe me? Anybody watched Congress or Bill Clinton lately?

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