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Gallup + Fox Nation + Abortion Poll = "Churnalism"

Reported by Alex - May 19, 2009 -

Since Friday, May 15th, the Fox Nation front page has featured a photo of a wide-eyed infant (Caucasian and blue-eyed, natch) over the headline, “Cultural Shift? Pro-Lifers Now the Majority in the US.” (see photo after the jump). A click on the headline under the cutsey wootsey, pink-with-health likkle babby (no anencephalic babies need apply) takes us to a Gallup page headed “More Americans “Pro-Life” Than “Pro-Choice” for First Time”.

Wow, how did that happen!? Did we miss something??

baby over "prolife" headline

Roughly this time last year, polls were showing a clear majority in favor of choice at least some of the time: a Qunnipiac poll showed 63% agreeing with the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established a woman's right to an abortion; a Pew poll last August showed 54% in favor of abortion being legal in most or all cases, with 5% undecided; and a TIME/SRBI showed an overwhelming 85% of those polled supporting a woman’s right to obtain an abortion either up until the time of viability or under certain more limited circumstances. And just last November the American people elected a President whose speeches and voting record demonstrated a pro-choice stance.

So where did this sudden seismic shift in public opinion come from?

From sloppy poll-taking, and journalists and editorial staff who are lazy, biased, or both, that’s where.

The truth is that while the Gallup poll showed that a greater number of those polled identified themselves as “pro-life” (51%) than “pro-choice” ( 42%), the majority (76%) responded that abortion should be legal in either all or limited circumstances. Only 23% responded that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances.

But it’s SOOOO much easier to attract publicity (and advertising) with a provocative headline and slanted story than with a fully truthful one. And its even better yet if the headline and story can be lifted wholesale from other sources, tweaked a little and, with minimal effort, sent on its merry way to propagate the meme du jour among the great unwashed, who in turn will be too lazy to look past the headline or check other sources. A review of online “news” sources shows that the meme has gone viral, as memes do. Look at this from the Rupert Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal’s Washington Wire :

“A majority of Americans now say they oppose abortion rights, according to a Gallup poll released today. It is the first time since the polling outfit began asking the question in 1995 that a majority of Americans have held that position.”

Helllloooooooo??? In what world does 76% in favor of abortion rights in some circumstances mean that a majority are opposed to them???

This is a prime example of what award-winning British journalist Nick Davies calls “Flat Earth News”: stories full of distortion, if not outright lies, get churned out and passed along in a media game of Chinese Whispers with an eye firmly on the bottom line, and the truth be damned. It’s not journalism - it’s “churnalism”.

And churn the story is what Fox News did too, following the lead of Lydia Saad, Gallup Senior Editor, who slanted the story towards the “pro-life” angle throughout her online report. Granted, the statistics show a trend towards a more conservative position on abortion among Republicans and independents who lean Republican – but those who identified themselves as Republican were strongly over-represented in the sample, which in turn may well have skewed the stats which purport to show an increase in the number calling themselves “pro-life” among those with Christian affiliations. Pretty slipshod work from an organization that has been considered the gold standard in public opinion polling for many years.

Be that as it may, there is one interesting question which is not addressed anywhere in Gallup’s online analysis:

How do you square this:

gallup 2009 pro-choice v "pro-life"

...with this?

gallup 2009 majority for legal abortion

Fifty-one percent identify themselves as “pro-life”, yet only 23% think abortion should be banned under all circumstances…even with social conservatives over-represented in the sample? Gee, now how could that be? Doesn't "pro-life" mean "no abortion"?

I will leave it to you, the readers, to discuss this apparent “discrepancy”. I report, you decide…

Meanwhile, back at the Fox Nation, where the sun never sets on the (self-)righteous, life is simple and uncomplicated. A click on the “comments” button brings us to this blurb: “New Gallup Poll, conducted May 7-10, finds 51% of Americans calling themselves "pro-life" on the issue of abortion and 42% "pro-choice." This is the first time a majority of U.S. adults have identified themselves as pro-life since Gallup began asking this question in 1995.” And that’s all it says. What a surprise.

For interesting critiques of the Gallup poll, go to these pages at Five-thirty-eight.com and this page at Media Matters.