Public opinion polls like mirrors?

Wieslawa Lewandowska talks to Dr. Tomasz Zukowski.

- Every day we are bombarded, overwhelmed, by opinion poll results. Polls concern all issues. Is it not exaggeration?

Dr. Tomasz Zukowski: - This is a part of a wider and unavoidable - since it is international - phenomenon. Public opinion polling becomes a new form of contemporary democracy, a specific constant referendum carried out among one thousand people or several hundred people, who are to represent the whole society. The same happens in Poland. During the pre-election campaigns in 2005 and 2007 we had several poll results a day! More and more poll results accompany almost all important public discussions and conflicts. Exaggeration? Sometimes it is. For example, there were the opinion polls on certain unpublished book the contents of which we could not get to know yet.

- Why do we eagerly use this superficial and uncertain knowledge, which results from public opinion polling?

- Because of common, human curiosity. We simply like to get to know other people’s opinions. We like comparing them with ours. This is like seeing pictures or looking at oneself in the mirror. Poll results are even more important for politicians, businessmen and the media. The information is simply indispensable to them to act effectively. That’s why today, when one can measure people’s opinions so quickly, fairly precisely and cheaply, surveys are conducted so frequently. Anyone that wants to get to know Poles’ opinions on some subject can commission a telephone poll, paying several thousand zloty; some special agency will present the poll results and next day you can use them. That is the reason - whether we want or not - why polls are important elements of contemporary public debates.

- Today the media - especially the simplest ones, i.e. tabloids - and opinion polls create a self-driving mechanism, and unfortunately, together with the polls, they lower the level of public debates.

- Indeed, polls would not be so important if it were not for the media. It is them that spread poll results, introduce them into public debates. One can also notice that a considerable number of polls, especially those presented by tabloids, ‘catch’ their superficiality, combining facts with emotions. Why? I have the impression that the mechanism ‘I pay - I demand’ begins to act here. The editorial boards that commission opinion polls begin influencing the contents of the questions. That’s an increasing tendency. The situation occurs even when there has already been advanced research on a given issue. The media ask their questions, using their own language, and they get their own different results...

- More expected?

- More suitable for their ideological or moral preferences or the supposed expectations of readers. One can see that sometimes poll results are treated in an instrumental way. If they ‘do not suit’, you look for different results, commission your own polls and ignore the inconvenient ones. For instance, that was the case in the recent moral panic, started by the media because of the cases of family violence, which they reported about. The serious research concerning this phenomenon (including professionally conducted public opinion surveys) indicates that family violence has not increased at all. On the contrary, one can say that for several years this serious problem has decreased and people’s condemnation of such violence has increased. These results have been simply passed over.

- Don’t you have the impression that poll results do not only become arguments in democratic debates but they also often replace them?

- A right remark. It happens sometimes. In the original classical democracy voting is always preceded by discussions whereas today social debates many a time begin by presenting poll results. It can happen that to some extent polls are directed through the contents of the questions. Then the picture of social opinion polls is posed.

- A reflection in a distorting mirror becomes reality?

- Sometimes it is the beginning of a debate about reality. And public opinion can accept this imperfect reflection as the truth. It especially happens when we deal with matters on which we have not made any definite opinions yet. When some issue is new or ambiguous it happens that the conducted poll results (including the distorted ones), supported by campaigns organised by the media, can create some new tendency, and consequently, they start the mechanism, which sociologists describe as ‘the spiral of silence’. People choose the option promoted by the media and reject its alternatives.

- Do we deal with media’s misuse of polls? Should the sociologist authorities not protest in such cases?

- They should and they try to voice their protests. But they do not always succeed. A few years ago those who commissioned surveys, eagerly approached the experts to help them order and interpret them. And sociologists’ organisations spoke a lot about the need to keep the quality of public opinion polls. The academics announced the standards to obey by those who conducted surveys. Today, after the wide expansion of tabloids, when the media (as well as the world of business and politicians) use polls more frequently, the situation has changed. The number of opinion polls, especially those conducted very quickly for the next day, has grown rapidly. Academic experts are less and less eagerly consulted and the standards that they have proposed are not always followed.

- Do we not overestimate the significance of public opinion polls in contemporary times?

- We have already said why we like polls so much. We treat them as a mirror showing ourselves, our opinions about the world. The alternatives for surveys can by opinions of experts, intellectual elites, politicians and the world of business. The usage of poll results as important or decisive arguments in debates is undoubtedly connected with the fact that people so not trust the elites so much.

- Thus we can have a tyranny of somewhat stupefied crowds...

- Let us not accept too rashly the opinion that the earlier forms of public debates, with the domineering roles of the elites and social authorities, were always better. Certainly, an opinion on especially difficult issues given by the well-prepared elite is more valuable that an opinion of people who know little about a given subject. However, a domineering role of the elites that do not consider people’s opinions can be dangerous, too. Surely opinion polls make debates democratic but on the other hand, one must remember that one cannot discuss all subjects accepting the support of the majority as a decisive argument.

- For example: to kill or not to kill, i.e. abortion and death sentence?

- Euthanasia as well. When we speak about fundamental values, the opinions of the majority are not sufficient. We need the opinions of ethicists and priests. But it does not mean that the media and polls will omit these spheres of debates. That’s why it is so important to participate in debates. The research conducted in Poland (and earlier in the United States) clearly shows that people’s opinions concerning the protection of human life depend to a big extent on the language you use while talking about this issue. When the respondents were asked about the conceived children’s right to live, most of them answered ‘yes’. When they were asked about women’s right to choose abortion, without mentioning what results from abortion, the prevailing answer was also ‘yes’. As you can see, the language that dominates debates can influence their results.

- The mechanism of audience ratings used by television stations, i.e. opinion polls on television programme and creating such a programme ‘to play to the gallery’ is a good illustration of the quality of our ‘survey civilisation’ - worse quality programmes are being made...

- In this case we deal with the effects of commercialisation. The audience ratings translate into advertising rates and that’s why this instrument of measure is needed and its results must be treated more and more seriously. Politicians are said to be too fascinated by polls but actually it is businessmen, including the owners of commercial media, have the biggest knowledge about the implementation of polls and the most perfect ability of their application. Politicians only more and more daringly adjust to the world of business and the media.

- Who actually forms social opinions nowadays since the authorities, intellectual and political elites are losing their respect?

- In Poland it is decisively the media! In the relationships media - parties the media are becoming more and more important. For example, in the recent political tandem the Freedom Union - ‘Gazeta Wyborcza’ it was ‘Gazeta' that was stronger and more solid. It could preserve its strong position in public life even when its political partner was marginalized. Where do the media gain such power from? In the whole world it is them that are main organizers, hosts of public debates, deciding what is important and what is not important in debates. Debates are not only organized by the media. The media also impose their conditions in debates. Parties are only invited guests. In Poland you can see this process more clearly because our parties are weaker than in Western Europe or the USA. Our parties have had no time to become strong.

- What should be done that the powerful, free and independent media - as they say themselves - care first of all for the common good and not for the interests of their owners?

- Firstly, they should care for pluralism in the media. You cannot allow one powerful concern or several most powerful allied media gamblers to dominate the Polish debates. If we deal with a greater diversity, pluralism in the media, if the important social environments have their own niche media, political discourse is less prone to manipulations. ‘The spiral of silence’: the mechanism to impose the whole society the opinions promoted by the strongest subjects from the world of ‘the virtuality of the media’ works in a weaker way. It is also important to have a real pluralism in the authorities present in public debates. They must build their positions on the information that they get from outside of the world of media as well.

- Exactly, where are the social authorities?

- Thanks God, in Poland we still have very important institutions which organise debates and which are not so strongly steered by the media. That’s why their influence can limit the power of the virtuality of the media. First of all, I mean the Church that has an alternative means of communication, i.e. the pulpit, at her disposal. The environments of intellectuals and experts play a similar, although to a lesser extent, role.

- But they pass through the filter of the media with more and more efforts!

- It happens to some extent because the media ‘educate’ experts for their own purposes...

- They are more eager to quote those who ‘have grown tame’?

- It is more complicated. Experts and the media play a certain game in which both parties try to ‘educate’ the second party. They use various methods. I can give a recent example from my own experiences. Certain TV station asked me to comment on the relationships between the Church and the left-wing party. The interview was recorded ‘in town’, to be used in a programme the station was preparing. At the end of the interview, to my astonishment (I happened for the first time in such a form of interview) I was asked to sign a form in which I renounced all rights to my image and statements given in the interview and to transfer my author’s rights to the station. I refuse to sign it. I hope that other people did the same in similar situations. Otherwise they would renounce their equal subjective positions in their relationships with this medium.

- In a word, there is no hope with this evil? How should we live in the ‘media-survey civilisation’, which forces its way to every corner of life and which so often blurs the truth?

- The situation is not so bad. A new civilisation gives us new chances apart from new threats. Firstly, the largest media concerns in Poland control one another, they catch and publicise failures of their rivals. Secondly, new specialised information programmes favour larger autonomy of experts in the media. Thus the advantage of the media over the authors decreases. The authors have more possibilities to present their views as they wish. Thirdly, new independent media, for instance internet portals (‘Salon24’ is a good example), assume the role of controllers over the most powerful media concerns. Generally, these portals publicise events that the large media agree to leave in silence for some reason. Certainly, it would be useful to have a deeper, regular - and independent from other concerns, including politicians - analysis of the media conducted by scientists, who are specialists in the media.

- Should we simply get used to our media-survey civilization?

- An alternative to the media-survey civilisation (with its specific form of ‘survey citizenship’) is, unfortunately, something much worse, from the perspective of democracy, namely, ‘the civilisation of advertisements’, which changes us into clients subject to manipulation. Therefore, I think that the right answer to the challenge, which undoubtedly the expansion of surveys is, should not be our ‘tearing the poll photographs’ but our constant care for their quality, good standards of conducting polls and principles of sincere comments given by the media. We should teach ordinary people how to read opinion polls properly so that we avoid as many poses as possible and show as many authentic gestures and human experiences as possible.

"Niedziela" 29/2008

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Lidia Dudkiewicz • Translation: Aneta Amrozik • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl