I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Saturday, January 03, 2009

How to spin a story

For the last couple of days, I've been seeing articles about the survey of military personnel regarding their feelings about Barak Obama. "Liberal" MSNBC has the headline "Troops Concerned about Obama." Conservative WND has the headline 6 of 10 in service wary about Obama. Beneath is the subhead, "Survey: Nobody has confidence in this guy as commander and chief." If you go to google news and type "military survey obama" you can turn up dozens of examples: The Military Doesn't Like This Guy.

Here are the numbers actually produced by the survey:
8% of respondents didn't offer an opinion.
25% are pessimistic.
33% are optimistic.
35% are uncertain.

So, looking at the raw numbers, significantly more troops are optimistic about Obama than pessimistic, and the plurality are uncertain--a term that could indicate skepticism, but could also indicate a sense of fairness--let's give the guy a shot at actually running things before we form an opinion.

To arrive at a majority "concerned" about Obama, you have to add the pessimistic to the uncertain. But it's just as valid to add the uncertain to the optimistic. You could have run the headline, "7 in 10 troops look forward to Obama as commander-in-chief." It would be no more accurate than the other headlines, but also no less accurate. "More in service optimistic than pessimistic about Obama" is far more accurate than any headline I actually saw.

I don't regard this as evidence of some vast right wing conspiracy. I do think it's evidence that, if you have a story where things are somewhat ambiguous, it's only going to hit the news if there's a way to put a negative spin on it. It's not news to say, "Largest plurality of troops waiting to form opinions on Obama." It is news to imply there's going to be conflict, and that the troops dislike Obama. If you're conservative, this reinforces your world view that sensible people hate this guy. If you're liberal, this reinforces your world view that conservatives (in the military) are close-minded and grumbling about Obama before he's served a day in office.

A deeper question might be to ponder why anyone bothered with this poll. Honestly, what does it matter whether the troops like Obama or not? Most people in most professions think their highest level managers are clueless jerks. (I have no poll data to support this, just a lot of conversations with people who work for big corporations.) Our military is going to go do the job they are told to do whether they like the Pres or not.

You hear about contractions in the news media. NPR is laying off reporters, newspapers are folding, networks are closing offices. But, honestly, if surveying groups of people about their feelings about the future performance of other people passes for news these days, what's the loss? There's actual news happening in the world; wars and rumors of wars, financial turmoil, a slew of new politicians pouring into Washington and state capitals. We shouldn't be wasting ink on these pointless surveys.

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