Raiders of the Lost Poll

Toward the end of March, Gallup, along with its polling partners CNN and USA Today, set out for the first time since the presidential election to measure the public’s attitude about same-sex marriage. The poll (unsurprisingly to those who have followed the issue) showed that an overwhelming majority of Americans do not think that homosexuals should be allowed to marry under the law. Opposition to same-sex marriage reached a five-year high, with 68 percent of Americans saying they were against gay marriage. Furthermore, while support for a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage has always hovered around 50 percent in past Gallup polls, 57 percent told pollsters they supported such a measure.

And so the story goes — at least, as I’m telling it. Polls produce a lot of data, and from this data any number of stories can be drawn. I very well could have written an entirely different lede based on the same poll, emphasizing that support for same-sex marriage stayed the same as it was in July 2004 (21 percent then to 20 percent in this poll) and that the number of people who support neither same-sex marriages nor civil unions also stayed consistent (43 percent in the last poll, versus 45 percent in this poll).

The reality is, media outlets that pay for polls get to do whatever they like with them, and write their stories to emphasize whatever they choose. And it’s this editorial authority that has some conservative bloggers screaming “liberal media bias” at the press for its supposed cover-up of the those poll results.

So, was there a cover-up?

The answer, from what we can tell, is probably not. If anything, news events now familiar to all Americans not living in hermetically sealed fallout shelters are responsible for keeping this mildly newsworthy poll off the front pages.

On April 1, United Press International filed the first story on the poll, writing that “U.S. opposition to same-sex marriage has surged to the highest level in four years, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Friday indicated.”

The UPI story tipped off the Washington Times’ Jennifer Harper, who authored the first newspaper story on the poll the next day. Harper chose to lead with the finding that “Public opposition to ‘marriages’ between homosexuals is at an all-time high, according to a poll released yesterday.” Harper told CJR Daily that she obtained the specifics of the poll from a Gallup librarian.

And then the pope died.

Gallup’s Eric Nielsen said that the organization had planned to post a story about the same-sex marriage findings on Monday, April 4, but the pope’s death pushed it off the agenda. On April 5, Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport briefly mentioned the findings in his Gallup Poll Tuesday Briefing, a weekly column.

According to Nielson, USA Today and CNN have access to the poll’s results almost immediately, which in this case would have been the night of March 20 or the morning of March 21. Nielson also said that on Friday, April 1, Gallup sent out the results of the poll to about 80 news organizations via email.

USA Today, however, has not yet written about the same-sex marriage results. Instead, the paper’s story on the poll called attention to Bush’s approval rating, then the lowest of his presidency. Lee Horwich, the paper’s political editor, told me, “When I looked at the polls the Bush approval rating was clearly the most newsworthy.” Yesterday the paper ran a story highlighting other Gallup poll results showing that the “GOP’s moral agenda” isn’t supported by a majority of Americans.

CNN, Gallup’s other media partner, mentioned the story on the April 5 edition of “Inside Politics” in a report pegged to the state of Kansas’ vote on a same-sex marriage ban. Reporter Bruce Morton noted that 68 percent of respondents opposed same-sex marriages, though he didn’t take note of any trends on the issue. (This oversight is a classic example of how news outlets often fail to explain what polls really mean, a problem that CNN, in particular, struggles with.)

USA Today ‘s and CNN’s coverage, or lack thereof, speaks for itself, but does the poll? Are the poll’s results even that startling? Gallup’s editor-in-chief Frank Newport told CJR Daily that the poll reflects “an up-tick in the opposition to same-sex marriage” and in his Tuesday briefing noted that this poll measured “the highest opposition to same-sex marriage … across the nine times this question has been asked over the last five years.” But he cautioned that one poll does not make a trend as this issue, like many moral issues, is “in flux to some degree.”

Our final verdict: The Gallup/USA Today/CNN trio did a mediocre-to-poor job of covering a mildly newsworthy poll. The story was clearly edged out by saturation coverage of two high-profile deaths — something the media should always guard against. As usual, however, there isn’t any indication of a political bias — only a bias toward sensationalism.

Thomas Lang

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.