Wait A Minute!

A Closer Look at The News

Perhaps the best advice in troubled times

By James O’Shea and Charles Madigan*

Oh my God! Democracy is collapsing!

We– James and I– know that because we read it here, in the New York Times, and what could be more reliable than that? The article ran under the headline “Most Voters Say U.S. Democracy Is Under Threat…” “But Few Feel Urgency.” The conclusion comes from a poll, one of those attention-grabbing pre-election polls that always seize the reading eye. 

What if it’s wrong?

Well, we won’t know until election day, but there are a couple of things we should take a closer look at in the wake of this scary story. The first is context. For weeks now, media has been focusing on everything from the impending collapse of the economy to the potential for a “civil war” mounted by angry Donald Trump supporters still peeved about the 2020 election “theft” by slippery Democrats and their child-molesting, Communist partners in crime.

Because this has been looked at from every possible angle, we know that none of that is true. But that doesn’t matter in this strange year because a lot of people have managed to squeeze truth and reality out of the system. Folks, all kinds of folks, burp up what has been in their diets. And those news diets aren’t always healthy, even when they are served up by The New York Times.

Take a minute to read the small type at the bottom of the Times story. First, it’s a poll from Siena College, which makes it one remove from the Times newsroom. That doesn’t mean Siena is wrong. It just means it’s not in the newsroom, where every aspect of the poll could be challenged and measured.

Second, it was conducted between Oct. 9 and 12. We are writing this on the 19th. There is no telling what may have changed in the interim, based on news, national mood, nasty or delightful attitudes, lots of factors.

And last, it is a poll based on questions asked of 792 Registered Voters across the nation. That’s not many to use to extrapolate what a whole nation will be doing. It might all sound like it’s just right on the button because of the fractured mood of the nation. How many of those were from New York City? How many from Miami? How many from Pittsburgh, Cleveland, St. Louis, Kansas City, Butte, Montana, Los Angeles. Seattle?

You don’t know, do you?

 To find that out you would have to read the tabs, where everything gets broken down and you learn Atlanta, Ga. might have, oh, say, two respondents.

 What good is that?

It’s why we have to Wait A Minute and take a closer look at what gets plopped onto our news platter.

Polls themselves aren’t the only problem. Reporting on their results often leads to overstatement, oversimplification, or both. One line jumped out in Times/Siena College poll:

“Voters overwhelmingly believe American democracy is under threat, but seem remarkably apathetic about that danger, with few calling it the nation’s most pressing problem,” the Times said.

There are two problems here.

In almost every poll, the ways questions are asked are just as important as the answers.

In the Times/Siena College poll, the pollsters clearly framed the question that asked potential voters to rank the MOST important problems facing the country today.

There’s a context of immediacy to that question that encourages respondents to list the problems that smack them in the face every day.

Indeed, far more potential voters (45 percent) listed the economy and inflation as the nation’s most pressing problems. Such issues, after all, are the ones that voters face when they go to the grocery store, the gas station, the appliance store or out to dinner.

In contrast, only 7 percent of potential voters placed the “state of democracy” in that category, leading to the conclusion that they were “remarkably apathetic” to anti-democratic dangers.

However, the question about the threat to democracy was far more ambiguous.

“Which (statement),” the poll asked, “comes closer to your view even if neither is exactly right?

1. American democracy is currently under threat.

2. American Democracy is not currently under threat.

Despite the cryptic nature of the question, 71 percent of the respondents agreed “American democracy is currently under threat.”

As a veteran journalists who dealt with many polls over a long career, we question whether the Times/Sienna poll results justified the report that Americans were “remarkably apathetic” to threats against democracy.

In better times economically, news organizations used to commission their own polls, subjecting the results to the editorial standards set in newsrooms across the country. When the news industry’s business model collapsed, the discipline newsroom editors imposed on polls diminished. News executives slashed poll budgets, eliminated polling operations, or outsourced them. 

Polls results became more vulnerable to the pressures exacted by the political process and sloppy, unprofessional pollsters. The Times remains a reputable news organization that cares deeply about disciplined editing. 

But we all make mistakes.

With only weeks to go until the midterm contests that will determine control of Congress, voters naturally focus on more immediate issues, such as the 40-year high rate of inflation that now plagues the economy and stock markets. The pressure-cooker atmosphere of an important election diminishes policy choices that involve long-term solutions. Political rhetoric elevates the more immediate issues upon which candidates’ campaign.

Respondents to the Times/Siena College Poll overwhelmingly told the pollsters that threats to democracy was one of those longer-term issues that could be resolved using existing laws and institutions.

 “I think we need to stop trying to rewrite the constitution and just reread it,” Audra James, an Iowa Republican told the Times.

That’s an important insight and one that doesn’t mean she is apathetic about the dangers faced by democracy. 

In fact, grappling with issues such as threats to the First Amendment by technologists who control social media is far more challenging that taming a temporary bout of inflation.

Somebody should have said “Wait a Minute.”


*James O’Shea is a longtime Chicago author and journalist who now lives in North Carolina. He is the author of several books and is the former editor of the Los Angeles Times and Managing Editor of the Chicago Tribune. Charles M. Madigan , who lives in Evanston, is a writer and veteran foreign and national correspondent for UPI and The Chicago Tribune, where he also served as a senior writer and  editor. Wait A Minute is their collaboration to examine news reporting, politics and world events.

6 thoughts on “Wait A Minute!

  1. Thank you both for this analysis. I read that headline and it was quite upsetting. We don’t need to be further upset than we already are. I am concerned about the threat to our democracy, but deep down, I have faith that we will survive this crisis and keep it. I’m disappointed in the NYT for running the article. A bit sloppy for them. Please continue doing these analyses! Really appreciate your expertise!


  2. Thank you so much for this today. Had not realized what has been going on behind the scenes of polling but have felt unsettled by the reliance on them. Yiyr piece spells out the problem clearly.


  3. I think this country has been in worse shape and we’re still here. Thank you for your comments and just keep PRAYING


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