By Dave Andrusko
Giving credit where credit is due: on Tuesday the ombudsman for NPR found that a story erred in describing the position of Catholics on the controversial Obama Administration mandate that forces virtually all employers to pay for services they regard as morally objectionable. The story manifested a two-fold error: a failure to point out who paid for a poll and a weakness in the poll itself, suggesting greater support for the mandate than actually existed.
Writes Edward Schumacher-Matos
“On All Things Considered Feb. 7, reporter Scott Horsley cited a poll released that day that said 53 percent of Catholic voters supported the free contraception mandate. Horsley reported that the survey was conducted by Public Policy Polling. What he didn’t add on air was that it was sponsored by Planned Parenthood, which backs the mandate.
“Having paid for many polls myself on behalf of The Wall Street Journal, I know that the questions are worked out between the client and the professional polling firm, giving the sponsor final say over exactly what is being measured. Influence over the question obviously gives you influence over the answer. I am not suggesting that Planned Parenthood loaded the dice in this poll, but its role should have been made clear.”
Horsley did not tell Schumacher-Matos that he didn’t know PPFA’s “involvement.” He readily “admitted his error” and told the Ombudsman “on further reflection, I agree that’s salient information.”
Okay, so, why did Horsley trust the findings? The wording seemed “neutral,” PPP (a Democratic polling organization) is reputable, and because another poll showed similar results, he explained.
More importantly is that Horsley nonetheless told the Ombudsman
“I would take issue with anyone who tries to argue that Planned Parenthood’s sponsorship somehow negates the findings of a reputable polling organization, especially when those findings are consistent with other polls.”
Since the thrust of Schumacher-Matos column is that these errors were not evidence of “liberal bias,” ask yourself this question. Does anyone believe that that had a reporter for NPR did a story about a poll funded by National Right to Life, NRL’s involvement would not have been a prominent feature of the story—indeed, a reason to dismiss its validity out of hand?
Secondly, the 53% figure is in dispute as well. The Ombudsman notes, to begin with, ”The sample was too small to hang much on.” Schumacher-Matos adds
“Horsley, to his credit, used fudge language by saying that the poll ‘suggests’ most Catholic voters agree. But he then interviewed the poll director, Tom Jensen, who said on air of both Catholics and women: ‘These are obviously groups that are going to be really key for the election this fall — swing voter groups. And they’re all quite supportive of the birth control benefit.’”
In fact, 52% of those identified as Catholic voters opposed the mandate—the opposite of the PPFA polls results (which, by the way, had a very large margin of error). The Ombudsman then consulted Robert Blendon, a professor and head of the Opinion Research Program at the Harvard School of Public Health, who told Schumacher-Matos that he preferred the design of a Pew poll conducted previously. Referring to that poll, Schumacher-Matos writes,
“It found that among the respondents who have heard of the issue, 55 percent of Catholics—in general, not just voters—say that the religious institutions should be exempted from the insurance mandate to give free birth control. This is contrary to the finding of the Public Religion Research Institute about all Catholics. And if Catholic voters are even more opposed to the mandate than Catholics overall, as the religion institute poll indicates, then the difference with the Planned Parenthood poll is a gaping sinkhole.”
As alluded to above, Schumacher-Matos concludes these were “honest mistakes,” not examples of “liberal bias.” In the end he slides by the specifics to look at the Big Picture:
“Some polls are manipulative by design, and almost all press releases on polls exaggerate by trying to draw headline-making conclusions. Reporters and editors have to as careful as possible to define just what is being measured, how it compares to other measures, and what the margin of error is.”
This is good advice in general, absolutely necessary counsel when it comes to Obama’s mandate. We will be told incessantly how much support there is for it.
Don’t believe it for a second.
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