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Journalism 614: Nature of Mass Opinion

Journalism 614: Nature of Mass Opinion Dominant and Competing Constructs Class Exercise Form an impromptu group of four to five people Try to draft survey questions to tap opinions about a topic of your choosing: Iraq, Environment, Consumption…

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Journalism 614: Nature of Mass Opinion

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  1. Journalism 614:Nature of Mass Opinion Dominant and Competing Constructs

  2. Class Exercise • Form an impromptu group of four to five people • Try to draft survey questions to tap opinions about a topic of your choosing: Iraq, Environment, Consumption… • Task #1: Write a “unbiased” question and then modify the wording in a way that you believe would produce a substantially different response - Explain why. • Task #2: Write a question that would appear either before or after this question that you believe would change the expression of opinion among respondents - Explain why. • 15 minutes

  3. Opinions toward Gay Marriage ABC News/Facebook Dec. 16-19, 2007. N=1,142 adults "Do you think homosexual couples should or should not be allowed to form legally recognized civil unions, giving them the legal rights of married couples in areas such as health insurance, inheritance and pension coverage?” Should 54% Should Not 43% Unsure 4%

  4. Or this this public opinion? CNN/Opinion Research Poll. Oct. 12-14, 2007. N=1,212 adults "Do you think marriages between homosexuals should or should not be recognized by the law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriages?". Should 40% Should Not 56% Unsure 3%

  5. Would differ if this were asked before or after the question: • How often do you attend church or a place of worship? • Every day • A few times a week • Once a week • A couple times a month • Once a month • Less than once a month

  6. Currently Dominant Construct • To most, public opinion is simply “the aggregate of responses to nationally representative surveys” • So, scholars stress that they… • Sample citizens with equal probability of inclusion • Ask unbiased and universally intelligible questions • Easy to systematically measure and report • Fits with the ideal of democratic, capitalist society • Each citizen has an opinion on every issue • Each consumer’s opinion shapes their choices

  7. Alternates to the Dominant View • Do citizens meet the basic prerequisites? • Do they have opinions to be measured? • Can surveys pose questions in a neutral manner? • Two alternative constructs • Estimate what the public would want if fully informed and rational - “enlightened or informed opinion” • Examine the opinion of private persons which governments / corporations find it prudent to heed

  8. Problems with Dominant View • Converse (1964) “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics” • Extends argument advanced in Campbell et al. (1960) • Presidential elections are not ideological mandates • Only a small percent view elections in ideological terms • Most think in more mundane terms - “good for farmers” • Converse developed notion of “attitude consistency” • The tendency of individuals to take consistently liberal, conservative or moderate positions across issues • Robust among elites, but weak among members of public

  9. Converse & Non-Attitudes • Attitude inconsistency across and within issues • When same people are asked same questions at two points in time, responses vary greatly • Not true for all attitudes (i.e., racial attitudes) • Still, for most issues, tremendous instability • How could such randomly fluctuating “attitudes” be the basis of any ideology, conventional or private? • Non-attitudes = absence of overtime response stability

  10. “Large portions of an electorate simply do not have meaningful beliefs, even on issues that have formed the basis for intense political controversy among elites for a substantial period of time” Converse, 1964

  11. The Measurement Error Response • Achen (1975) challenged the view that stability or instability is what qualifies a response as an attitude or non-attitude. • Measurement error explains change • No attitude can be measured without error • Even people with real attitudes display change • Due to vagueness of natural language and difficulties of mapping opinions onto arbitrary response scales • Statistical estimates that account for measurement error find that underlying attitudes are stable

  12. The Question-Answering Critique • Seemingly innocuous features of survey design affect expressed “public opinions” • Order in which questions were asked • Order in which response alternatives are listed • Inclusion of certain words and phrases

  13. The Nature of Mass Opinion • People do not possess fixed attitudes • Instead, they possess a jumble of frequently conflicting “considerations” • Each predisposes them in a particular direction • No one of these constitutes a “true attitude” • Question answering is a function of what is at the “top of the head” at the moment of response • Most people for most issue have a fairly wide range within which they are ambivalent

  14. Opinion Ambivalence • Which pole of their ambivalence gets expressed depends on the considerations made salient by… • Question wording • Question order • Response Options • Interpersonal Discussion • News of the Day • Explains response instability and context effects • Not simply non-attitudes • Not simply measurement error

  15. “A great deal of uncertainty, tentativeness, and incomprehension marks the typical mass survey response… the question-answering model make opinion measurement in a poll difficult to defend as a completely neutral act.” Zaller, 1994

  16. Implications of this View • No public opinion poll questions are politically neutral - always involve framing • This framing often comes from larger political community, whose discourse anchors the debate and question wording • Thus, there may be no independent, unified opinion that exists separate from politics, but multiple possible opinions to be activated

  17. Enlightened Opinion • The political ignorance of the American votes is well documented - Bartels • Do heuristics allow for good decisions? Sometimes • What would the public want if fully informed? • Focus Groups and Deliberative Polling • Estimates of Informed Opinion • Gap between expressed and enlightened opinion

  18. Latent Opinion • Opinion that might exist at the time of the next election and result in incumbent politicians being thrown out of office - Key • No connection to data, immeasurable • Theoretical construct to answer the question of what particular form of public opinion affects what the government does

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