Recently the headlines have trumpeted the results of the ABC News poll indicating overwhelming American support for the death of Terri Schiavo. Discussions about the negative impact of the Republican Congress's interference dominate political discussions. The March 21 ABC News Online headline screamed "Poll: No Role for Government in Schiavo Case" and "Federal Intervention in Schiavo Case Prompts Broad Public Disapproval."
Most people try to be well-informed citizens. They read such stories, and hear the stories discussed all over the place. After a time, the story itself becomes a "fact," with no discussion of the details of the story.
Polls use numbers to present ideas in a form that enhances credibility -- we believe science and mathematics. The problem is that the questions that are asked on the poll can affect the answers considerably.
The ABC poll quoted these numbers:
[From the ABC story]: "The public, by 63%- 28%, supports the removal of Schiavo's feeding tube, and by a 25-point margin opposes a law mandating federal review of her case."
In contrast, a Zogby poll found that 79% of those surveyed opposed the removal of Schiavo's feeding tube, and favored government action to saver her life by a 24-point margin.
How can two respected polling agencies arrive at such opposing conclusions? Simple -- they asked different questions.
The ABC poll phrased one question this way: "[Terri] Schiavo suffered brain damage and has been on life support for 15 years. Doctors say she has no consciousness and her condition is irreversible. Her husband and her parents disagree about whether she would have wanted to be kept alive. Florida courts have sided with the husband her feeding tube was removed on Friday. What's your opinion on this case -- do you support or oppose the decision to remove Schiavo's feeding tube?" 63% supported removing the tube.
The Zogby poll phrased a similar question in a different way: "If a disabled person is not terminally ill, not in a coma, and not being kept alive on life support, and they have no written directive, should or should they not be denied food and water?" 79% said the person should receive food and water.
With the ABC poll loaded as heavily as it was, the answers were a foregone conclusion.
ABC asked: "Would you support or oppose a new federal law requiring the federal courts to review the Schiavo case?" 60% opposed; 35% favored such a law.
Zogby asked: "When there is conflicting evidence on whether or not a patient would want to be on a feeding tube, should elected officials order that a feeding tube be removed or should they order that it remain in place?" 42% thought the tube should remain in place; 18% said removed.
The media's manipulation of data to shape public opinion has been demonstrated very well the last few years. What is amazing in this case is how what is presented as public opinion is the tool they use to shape that very opinion.
The national dialogue is controlled, and it takes a great deal of will to cut through and see the essence of what is actually going on.