Thursday, July 27, 2006

Journalists and polls just don't mix.

There needs to be a moratorium on journalists with no statistical (or other relevant) experience interpreting polls in newspapers. See here for the latest contribution to the growing debacle from the New York Times. Here's the lead:
Americans are overwhelmingly pessimistic about the state of affairs in the Middle East, with majorities doubtful there will ever be peace between Israel and its neighbors, or that American troops will be able to leave Iraq anytime soon ... A majority said the war between Israel and Hezbollah will lead to a wider war. And while almost half of those polled approved of President Bush’s handling of the crisis, a majority said they preferred the United States leave it to others to resolve. Over all [sic], the poll found a strong isolationist streak in a nation clearly rattled by more than four years of war, underscoring the challenge for Mr. Bush as he tries to maintain public support for his effort to stabilize Iraq and spread democracy through the Middle East.
However, when you look at the actual results, we find that:
  • 56% supported a timetable for "reducing" the US forces in Iraq (hardly an "overwhelming" number)
  • Americans generally support an international peacekeeping force in Lebanon and Israel, although without US involvement (which is hard to read as "isolationist" rather than "sick of the cost and deaths in Iraq")
  • 59% do not believe the US should "take the lead" in solving international conflicts (which says nothing about whether the US should be involved at all)
In short, the results reported in the later part of the article contradict the lead-in and, indeed, the headline's inflammatory rhetoric.

Going further into the polling results reveals a few more things that undercut the article's tone.

  • 78% think the US should play a more active role or maintain its current role in trying to bring peace between Israel and its neighbours (53% maintain, 25% increase)
  • There is almost an even split between those who think the Iraq invasion was a good idea (47%) and those who do not (48%)
While it's fun to beat up on Americans for being xenophobes -- although, frankly, if you live in a country the size of the US, it's pretty easy to avoid leaving and still lead a life filled with a wide variety of cultural experiences -- I really don't see the data to support the claim. I'm sure there's a reason for the distortions beyond trying to sell papers through controversy, but I can't put my finger on it right now.

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