Politics / Other
What do the fast approaching midterm elections, Ebola, same sex marriage and the news have in common with the original Star Trek Series? Tribbles, as in The Trouble with Tribbles, those lovable little gifts that keep on giving and giving and giving. If you are unfamiliar with the iconic episode, suffice it to say what was cute when there was one and tolerable when there was 10 but became a plague when they appeared by the hundreds. The media have a developed a sort of Tribble trouble of their own, namely polls.
Once exclusively the province of marketers of the political and commercial stripe that were occasionally leaked to or shared with the press to gain an advantage or allay concerns has grown to an infestation of astronomical proportions. Poll results worked their way into every corner of journalism and a testament to their ubiquity can be found in the New York Times attempt to incorporate Nate Silver’s 538 blog about polls into the Gray Lady’s regular repertoire of reporting.
Polls have their place. They serve a purpose for those who commission them as a means of taking the pulse of a target audience in order to enhance strategic decision making. They even have an occasional place in news reporting, as my grandmother would say, in moderation. Of course, like the legendary Tribbles, they have multiplied beyond the point of merely being a nuisance to becoming an outright danger to the public discourse.
Take political polls for instance, there are few television news stories about upcoming elections, pending nominations and laws or any other governmental action that does not include at least one mention of poll results. They report individual results, groups of results, changes in the results and averages of all polls. Time and column inches that were once dedicated to delving into the issue is now mindlessly devoted to the opinions of people who can’t name the current Vice President of the United States.
Breathless veteran journalists debate like Chris Matthews will spend entire segments grilling guests, whether the President should base public health decisions on the opinions of doctors, scientists and epidemiologists or a poll that says Americans think we should quarantine anyone who has ever said Africa and sneezed! Chris Matthews is not alone in hyping polls as a means of determining public policy. The fine folks at Fox regularly cite polls that indicate Americans have no problem limiting the civil rights of others so why not just lock-up those that disagree.
Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to the problem with polls because, like the mythological Pandora’s box once the evils contained in it have been released there may be no way to get them back in. Cable and network news has to fill hours of programming and polls are the perfect filler because they change daily and vary from one to another. Print and online news outlets feeling the pressure to compete with television and radio succumb to the seductive allure of pollsters peddling their wares.
The only glimmer of hope, of salvation from the purgatory of polling is for consumers of the news, you and me to say enough. When confronted with poll results as proof that something must be true or false, right or wrong, we need to look that person squarely in the eye and inform them that a recent poll indicates that people who quote polls are….