The Media Today

Why the media should listen to voters’ ‘wrong’ answers in polls

May 24, 2024
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My colleagues at The Guardian released a poll earlier this week with some truly eye-popping numbers: nearly 60 percent of Americans believe that the country is in a recession, and around half think that the stock market is down and that unemployment is at a fifty-year high.

That’s just not true. The country is not in a recession, stocks are up, and unemployment is actually near a fifty-year low.

After The Guardian’s fascinating poll dropped, there was plenty of online chatter about how voters could be so wrong about the facts—and who, exactly, was to blame. 

“Congratulations to the news media on a terrific job of public education,” Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, remarked sardonically on X.

The media certainly deserves a portion of the blame: false claims get repeated on major networks (as Fox News’s massive settlement with Dominion Voting Systems shows), and even good journalists get spun, let their biases creep in, and make mistakes. This is also a byproduct of the fracturing of media: if people don’t like what they’re hearing or reading, it’s never been easier for them to seek out (or have an algorithm push to them) a set of facts more to their liking.

It is also still early in the election cycle by historical standards, and many voters will never pay attention to the finer points of economic policy.

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I called Sabato to ask why he blamed the media for voters’ factually wrong answers on that Guardian poll. He said that Americans have always been a “distracted public,” but that it’s “gotten much worse” in recent years, as the media ecosystem has shifted and partly collapsed.

“We often talk about high-information voters versus low-information voters. What we leave out is the no-information voter,” he told me. They’re the ones on social media or watching these crank news shows from the far right.… They actually know less than they would if they didn’t watch news at all. I’m very pessimistic.”

That’s all true—but just because voters might not know policy details (or sometimes even basic facts) doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen to them. 

To borrow a Trump-era phrase, we should take their answers seriously, not literally.

Sometimes, when they respond to a poll, people are more interested in sending a signal as to how they feel about something than answering the literal question asked. And these results show voters are expressing a deeper truth: the economy might not be bad on paper, but it certainly feels terrible to them.

On Thursday, we got another economic poll that showed what this might be about. 

The excellent Cook Political Report, teaming up with two high-quality pollsters, conducted a swing-state survey that found that inflation—and its real-world manifestations—was dominating the way voters perceived the economy.

“When asked what they thought the best markers of a strong economy were, few (6%) picked the stock market, only 13% picked low unemployment, and just 9% chose household income. Instead, a healthy majority (54%) said the cost of living was the best way to measure the strength of the economy,” they wrote.

The stock market might be up and unemployment might be low, but many voters are still feeling the pinch—and they might be looking to signal to pollsters just how worried they are about the economy. We journalists should hear them loud and clear.

Other notable stories:

  • Erik Wemple, a media critic at the Washington Post, blasted NPR for “cowardice” and “pandering” after it instituted a new layer of editorial review amid the fallout from an essay by a (now former) editor accusing the broadcaster of liberal bias. “NPR has retreated into panic mode, scorched by its sudden turn in national headlines,” Wemple concludes. “Who is NPR trying to appease? From all appearances, Republicans.”
  • In other media-jobs news, Masha Gessen, a leading writer on authoritarianism and other issues at The New Yorker, is joining the New York Times as a columnist. The Times also hired Teddy Schleifer, a journalist at Puck who has carved out a beat covering billionaires and their influence over politics, philanthropy, and tech. And Semafor’s Ben Smith and Nayeema Raza are launching a new media podcast, Mixed Signals.
  • And a programming note: we’ll be off Monday for Memorial Day. See you Tuesday.

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Cameron Joseph is a freelance political reporter with recent work in The Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, and Politico Magazine. A recipient of the 2023 National Press Foundation Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress and the 2020 National Press Club award for excellence in political journalism, he previously worked for VICE News, Talking Points Memo, the New York Daily News, The Hill and National Journal.