Thursday, June 13, 2013

"Ordinary" Matters, At Least in Poll Wording

Two polls this week on the NSA mess offer a nice case study of the power of a single word in survey research.

I offer to you, dear reader, that simplest of words -- ordinary.

An ordinary word, ordinary.  It means "commonly encountered," according to this dictionary.  Or, more to the point in describing me: "Of no exceptional ability, degree, or quality; average."  Yup, that about sums me up.  Ask anyone.

But here ordinary carries extraordinary meaning.  A recent CBS news poll asked:
In order to reduce the threat of terrorism, do you approve or disapprove of federal government agencies collecting phone records of ordinary Americans?
Thirty-eight percent approved of collecting phone records, while 58 percent disapproved. I underlined ordinary because, in this instance, it's anything but.  A Pew poll conducted at about the same time asked a similar question:
As you may know, it has been reported that the National Security Agency has been getting secret court orders to track telephone call records of millions of Americans in an effort to investigate terrorism. Would you consider this access to telephone call records an acceptable or unacceptable way for the federal government to investigate terrorism?
See that millions?  Sure you do, because I cleverly emphasized it using all the typographical tools at my disposal.  The results are different.  Fifty-six percent find this acceptable in the Pew poll, significantly higher than the ordinary CBS wording.  That's a helluva difference.  Yes, the questions differ in other ways, but I'm certain the use of ordinary versus millions makes all the difference in the world.

So, which is the more accurate question?  Glad you asked.  In this case, I find ordinary to be an extraordinarily loaded word, to make it sound like it's something closer to home.  I like the millions language better.  More abstract, less threatening.  Less loaded.


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