Friday, November 11, 2005

What People Think

I have seen a lot of news stories recently that are basically nothing more than commentaries on polls of what people believe. I wonder why that is news. I mean, why it is front page news. If you tell people incorrect information, or give them correct information that later changes but neglect to inform them of the change, and then poll them on what they believe to be true, you are likely to find they believe what they were last told. What is news about that?

Example. I would bet that if I polled Americans right now, they would believe that the US Army is having trouble meeting recruitment goals. That is because the last news that appeared on the subject was about the Army having trouble meeting their goals early in the summer and no additional information has appeared on the front pages or lead news in the A/V media since then. People tend to have a little inertia. If they are told something, they tend to believe that is true until they are told differently. This is how *not* telling someone something can impact public opinion and be tantamount to telling them incorrect information.

The truth is the Army has met or exceeded it's recruiting goals for the past five months. It is true that it did fall short for the overall year, but people were never told the reason for that. Congress mandated an increase in the overall size of our forces. This meant that in order to comply with that mandated increase, recruiting goals had to be increased above and beyond the expected numbers. As a result, recruiting "fell short". Now, once you have absorbed the initial increase, it is easier to maintain the force at a given size because those troops leave at different times depending on their term of enlistment.

You can find that information if you dig around, but you won't find it in the headline news like you did when the Army was having trouble recruiting. I have yet to see a headline on page one that says "Army meeting recruiting goals for fifth consecutive month." so people operate on the information they last obtained which is obsolete and has not been corrected with the same distribution the original information had.

Another example might be the main road to Baghdad airport. People polled might think that is a very dangerous, maybe even the *most* dangerous road in Iraq. But it isn't anymore. That perception is based on obsolete information. What is happening these days is that the American public has a whole series of misconceptions based on obsolete information that has never been corrected. The major news outlets are very quick to put out bad news, or news that shows the current administration or war situation in a bad light but never bother to update the negatives when the situation changes. So you end up with a population that has a very distorted opinion of what is going on. People who *do* dig through the stories and find the little blurbs that aren't placed on page one have a very different view. Sometimes the information can only be found in the international media and are never picked up by the major US outlets.

Another example would be a belief that casualty rates in Iraq are growing when in fact they are going in the opposite direction. You won't find a story that says "Iraqi casualties down by double-digit percentage for second straight month!" except maybe in Iraq. But you will find all kinds of stories about the 2000th US casualty. In fact, I watched a network TV series where they had an episode all queued up to run when that milestone was reached (Boston Legal).

The polls are then used as some kind of validation of the situation. Gee, if the majority of people believe something to be so, it must be so, right? Nobody in the major media ever comes out and says "The reason people are misinformed is because of a barrage of reports three months ago that were never corrected when the situation changed." because it doesn't fall within the political agenda of the media outlet to do that. Yes, political agenda. The more I watch what is going on, the clearer it becomes that most of the media outlets share a common political agenda. They are using their special role to nudge popular opinion in a certain direction. They aren't reporting, they are leading, or misleading as the case may be. No surprise here. If you read Ben Franklin's autobiography, you find that he did the very same thing. It is as old as our country. That's fine as long as you understand it for what it is and take things with a grain of salt and do your part by digging and keeping up with things. But be careful about expressing an opinion if it is based on information that is more than a couple of months old, because it might no longer be true.

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