Polls And The Questions They Ask

The other day I was reading about a poll completed by Pew Research about which news sources people distrust most.  I think they listed some thirty news sources from MSNBC and ABC to The Drudge Report and Jon Stewart.  Those who were surveyed were ask to rate themselves along five political or philosophical positions.  The choices were usually conservative/liberal, somewhat conservative/liberal, and usually moderate.  So we have what is referred to as the mainstream news media, comedy shows, newspapers, and internet blogs on the list.  Of course there was little mention of the methods nor the population asked.  No one was asked what news source they trusted nor were they asked about the perceived accuracy of any news source.  There were no attempts to label the news sources as either liberal, conservative, or neutral or if the news sources cherry picked their news items.  The poll, for all I could tell was a simple question of who do you distrust the most.  And as one would have expected liberals distrusted conservative news sources the most while conservatives distrusted liberal news sources the most.

One of the surprises was that the BBC was distrusted the least by both groups.  It must the be the received pronunciation, that is, the speech patterns usually acquired at Oxford.  Even the British don’t trust the BBC that much.  Another interesting source of news was Yahoo.  Of course Yahoo is a search engine and not a news agency staffed with reporters.  Yahoo merely searches all the news sites and then feeds you news stories based on geographical location, search habits, and whatever else they may know about you.  If you click on mostly liberal or mostly conservative news stories then Yahoo adjusts your viewing accordingly.  As the internet sights, some may be no more than direct links to new papers or other print media while others are blog sites that represent a political agenda.  For the blog sites, the news items usually come from the mainstream media or through free lance reporters.

A free lance reporter is anyone who is trying to sell news items written about events.  Anyone can be a freelance reporter.  And many of the mainstream media have their special correspondents and contributors.  To be named and paid as a news contributor gives one more credibility and authority.  People seek your opinion whether it is of any use.  Such people may be columnist of newspapers or magazine editors/writers.  They may be well known news reporters/journalists.  Or they could be individuals who may manage hedge funds or other investment corporations.  It is all about perceptions.  Local dog chases local cat over local fence may be news but only to a very limited few individuals.  What happens in Cambodia or Namibia tends to stay in those countries unless a politically based group tried to push it to the forefront of our collective awareness.  Even then the news item is more of a curiosity nature than serious issue.  Human interest plays to a limited audience and current affairs are divided up into chunks according to their natures.  Are we bashing corporations for their global presence this week?  Maybe it is terrorist week and the armies of the night.  Elections are always pushed to the front when possible.  Indeed, our news medias are like the entertainment moguls of Hollywood.  Always trying to divine the current mood of the various populations.  Just as with popular book authors, what sells gets published.

News is a form of entertainment.  One of the best films on that subject was Network with William Holden and Faye Dunneway.  Most people who have seen that film remember that line uttered by Howard Beale, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”  But one of the better speeches by that character is when Beale tells his audience just what television really is and that it is a fake.  “We lie to you.  We tell you anything you want to hear.”  This coming from a supposed nationally know newscaster of the sixties and seventies.  Of course I love the five minute lesson on current accounts (international money transactions and settlements) that the chairman of the board delivers to Howard Beale in the boardroom of CCA.  But I digress.

The news media is a business, an entertainment business.  And entertainment businesses rely on ratings or how many people regularly watch or subscribe to that particular channel or website.  And the ratings are an indication of the worth of advertisement time that can be sold to advertisers.  It is an indirect measure and thus a difficult measure to exploit for those with products to sell the various populations who watch or read the site.  Oh, we now have the big names in newspapers demanding that you subscribe to their website and pay a yearly fee or a smaller purchase price for single news stories.  That was the business model before the internet.  Now the price of printed newspapers and magazines are very high in relation to the subscriptions for internet access.  But the printed media always relied on the number of individuals who actually paid for their newspapers or magazines because no advertiser would pay for the right to advertise unless there was a paid subscription population.  Of course with the internet we have that metric of the number of clicks.  Unfortunately that means the number can be manipulated by others and by having subscriptions one has an honest count.

So there we have it.  Did the Pew Report really tell us anything or was it playing to the crowd?  Did it give us great insight or just more data of dubious value?  And even if you trust your sources of news, is it really news you can trust or just more propaganda?  We can’t even trust our federal government’s statistics about employment and economic measures.  Why should we think our sources of news are much better?

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