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Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Pluralistically Ignorant Silent Majority?

I'm pretty sure I'll be the only one who doesn't agree with this:

A New Silent Majority, by Mark Buchanan, Commentary, NY Times: ...[W]hen the speaker of the House, the Democrat Nancy Pelosi, visited Syria and met with President Bashar al-Assad, a poll had 64 percent of Americans in favor of negotiations with the Syrians. Yet this didn’t stop an outpouring of media alarm.

A number of CNN broadcasts  ... show[ed] Pelosi with a head scarf beside the title “Talking with Terrorists?”... The conventional wisdom on the principal television talk shows was that Pelosi had “messed up on this one” ... and that she and the Democrats would pay dearly for it.

So it must have been a great surprise when Pelosi’s approval ratings stayed basically the same after her visit, or actually went up a little.

A common explanation of this tendency toward [media] distortion is that the beltway media has attended a few too many White House Correspondents’ Dinners and so cannot possibly cover the administration with anything approaching objectivity. No doubt the Republicans’ notoriously well-organized efforts in casting the media as having a “liberal bias” also have their intended effect in suppressing criticism.

But I wonder whether this media distortion also persists because ... many Americans think that what they see in the major political media reflects what most other Americans really think – when actually it often doesn’t.

Psychologists coined the term “pluralistic ignorance” in the 1930s to refer to this type of misperception... A study back then had surprisingly found that most kids in an all-white fraternity were privately in favor of admitting black members, though most assumed, wrongly, that their personal views were greatly in the minority. Natural temerity made each individual assume that he was the lone oddball. ...

In pluralistic ignorance, as researchers described it in the 1970s, “moral principles with relatively little popular support may exert considerable influence because they are mistakenly thought to represent the views of the majority, while normative imperatives actually favored by the majority may carry less weight because they are erroneously attributed to a minority.”

What is especially disturbing about the process is that it lends itself to control by the noisiest and most visible. ... Their strong vocalization can produce “false consensus” ... as others, who think they’re part of the minority, keep quiet. As a consequence, the extremists gain influence out of all proportion to their numbers, while the views of the silent majority end up being suppressed...

Over the past couple months, Glenn Greenwald at Salon.com has done a superb job of documenting what certainly seems like it might be a case of pluralistic ignorance among the major political media... Routinely, it seems, views that get expressed and presented as majority views aren’t really that at all. ...

As most people get their news from the major outlets, these distortions – however they occur, whether intentionally or through some more innocuous process of filtering – almost certainly translate into a strongly distorted image in peoples’ minds of what most people across the country think. They contribute to making mainstream Americans feel as if they’re probably not mainstream, which in turn may make them less likely to voice their opinions.

One of the most common examples of pluralistic ignorance, of course, takes place in the classroom, where a teacher has just finished a dull and completely incomprehensible lecture, and asks if there are any questions. No hands go up, as everyone feels like the lone fool, even though no student actually understood a single word. It takes guts, of course, to admit total ignorance when you might just be the only one.

Last year, author Kristina Borjesson interviewed 21 prominent journalists for her book “Feet to the Fire,” about the run-up to the Iraq War. Her most notable impression was this:

The thing that I found really profound was that there really was no consensus among this nation’s top messengers about why we went to war..., and if they weren’t clear about it, that means the public wasn’t necessarily clear about the real reasons. And I still don’t think the American people are clear about it.

Yet in the classroom of our democracy, at least for many in the media, it still seems impolitic – or at least a little too risky – to raise one’s hand.

He gives a lot of examples of "pluralistic ignorance" in the longer article and in the process seems to give the media a break - it's not a failure to do their job, it's a well-known psychological misperception problem that strikes us all, including reporters ("what certainly seems like it might be a case of pluralistic ignorance among the major political media").

I'm not so sure about that. The public has surely been misled at times and "pluralistic ignorance" might explain some public misperceptions. But many of the examples of media distortions given in the article could have been avoided with more thorough reporting. Knowing what the polls actually say before reporting on them is not too much to ask. To me, "pluralistic ignorance" of the media doesn't quite cover this "typical" case of misreporting poll results:

In a typical example in March, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell reported that most Americans wanted to pardon Scooter Libby, saying that the polling “indicates that most people think, in fact, that he should be pardoned, Scooter Libby should be pardoned.” In fact, polls showed that only 18 percent then favored a pardon.

    Posted by on Thursday, May 24, 2007 at 12:24 AM in Economics, Press | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (35)


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