Connections: Says Who?

Polls have had an increasingly powerful effect on legislative decisions

    Ever since I joined the staff of The Star decades ago, I have adhered to the old-fashioned journalists’ prohibition against public expressions of support for one political position or another: I do not sign petitions, attend meetings to either advocate for or oppose matters of controversy, and I do not usually participate in polls. This week, however, I broke with the last of these standards.

    As we know, polls have had an increasingly powerful effect on legislative decisions; this is especially true at the federal level, but more and more often at the local level, too. The media treat poll results as news. We have gotten so used to this adjunct of the democratic process that there seems little debate about how seriously the results of polls should be taken.

    In a recent essay for the Neiman Journalism Lab, an affiliate of Harvard, Herbert J. Gans, a sociologist, expressed doubt about how well polls truly reflect the will of the people. He pointed out that news reports on polls almost never describe the specific questions that had been asked and do not generally include figures to account for respondents who didn’t have opinions on the matter or were unsure of their answer. For that reason, Mr. Gans said, poll results are often not an adequate measure of majority opinion.

    Obviously, the answer we give to a pollster is very much affected by the way a question has been framed. The wording, as I have learned, is often anything but neutral, but instead engineered to garner one result or another.

     The telephone rang this week on Edwards Lane, and the person on the other end indicated that she was seeking opinions on a proposed zoning law in the Town of East Hampton (a law that will, as a matter of fact, be subject to public hearing tonight and happens to be the subject of an editorial today). All the caller would say when I asked her to describe the proposed law was that it would become clear as we went along.

    At first, the questions were as wholesome and straightforward as motherhood and apple pie. Did I approve of maintaining East Hampton’s rural or semi-rural character, protecting hamlets, neighborhoods, landscapes, scenic vistas, and historic buildings? Of course I did.

    As the questioning progressed, however, the queries became astoundingly biased. They were rigged in such a way that if those who answered wanted to be counted as in favor of the proposed new zoning law, they would find themselves approving something that was going to have dire, damaging effects on the community.

    I was told that if the law were approved it would become extremely inconvenient for residents to buy necessities such as milk — and was I in favor of its passage? Then I was told that if the law were passed it would cause the community to suffer economic loss, because there would be fewer jobs — and did I support that?

    (I wish I had been sitting at my computer at the time of the call so I could have taken more precise notes, but you get the gist.)

    At the hearing tonight, some will no doubt argue that local government has no right to restrict commerce. Others may say that although the goals of the law are reasonable, its restrictions go too far.

    It’s likely, someone will come waving the results of the poll in his or her hand, as “proof” of the public’s wishes. Frankly, I would be delighted if they do, because perhaps then we will learn which individual, organization, or corporation paid for this sham.