The Field Poll Lies


root - Posted on 10 September 2001

Do Californians Really Want Nuclear Power and the Recall of Governor Gray Davis?...Or Do Field Polls Tell Californians what they should want?

by Alison VanDeursen, Dee Gray and class at POOR New Journalism/ Media Studies Program

In our journalism and media studies class, we read an article titled "Nuclear power's California Comeback," published May 23, 2001 in the San Francisco Chronicle. Carla Marinucci reports that, according to a Field Poll, the California public opinion has shifted from "No Nukes" to "Go, Nukes!" in the face of the Energy Crisis.

The results of the survey made the Chronicle happy. It gave them a good headline. It made Dick Cheney happy. He supports nuclear power. It made executives and stockholders in the nuclear energy business happy. It made me very unhappy, and suspicious.

Now, I am a Californian, and so are most of my friends, and I don't know any one of us who supports nuclear power. I wondered about this Field Poll, which I've always assumed to be a poll taken out in the field, so to speak. I wondered who actually took this poll, and found that it was conducted by the Field Institute- ah!

Our class contacted journalists at the Chronicle, including Marinucci. They told us that they trust the results of the Field Poll "without any questions," though they claimed not to know much about this source or how it was run. I've been taught to investigate the credibility of sources, so I looked up the Field Institute on the internet. I discovered the that Field Institute is a part of the Field Research Corporation, founded in 1945 by Mervin Field.

Not long ago I worked at a market research company, so I know a bit about what goes on in these places. We had a staff of telephone interviewers who would call people from a database and screen them for participation in focus groups. We might be hired by a beer company, or a car company, or a political campaign or a pharmaceutical company. Once we hosted a focus group about sardines. It could be anything.

The client would hire us to find people of a certain demographic- say, San Francisco residents with AIDS who use marijuana, or business executives who will buy a new luxury car in the next 6 months, or housewives who buy a particular brand of cookie. We would find people who matched and then these folks were invited to a focus group, where they might sit and, led by a professional moderator, discuss Kleenex for two hours. They'd receive $50 to $400 bucks in compensation for their time and opinions. The company would then use this information to influence effective advertising campaigns.

Sometimes the callers get stressed, or lazy, or they haven't met the quota of qualifying participants yet. And then they might prompt their respondents to answer the questions "correctly." This happens to my roommate all the time, who has a sort of part-time job attending focus groups. Say, X-Brand Beer wants men aged 25-40 who drink their product 5 times a week. The screener asks, "What brands of beer do you drink?" My roommate says, "Oh, A, B and C." The screener has been instructed to then say, "Thank you, but you do not qualify," and go on to the next call. But she might go off-script and say, "Well, what about X-Brand?" And my roommate knows that if he wants to make $75 for talking about beer labels, he'd best say, "Oh, yeah, I drink that all the time... I've got some in my fridge right now..."

The Field Research Corporation conducts such studies as these. But the Field Institute has a different focus. It is described as a "non-partisan, independent organization devoted to the study of California public opinion and behavior on social, political and economic issues." The Field Institute, under the direction of Mark DiCamillo and Mervin Field, conducts the Field Poll.

So corporate business hire the Field Research Corporation to conduct surveys. Who hires the Field Institute? In one sense, supposedly no one. When I spoke to DiCamillo, he assured me that he and Mervin Field, solely, determine the subjects of study and design the questionnaires.

However, the Field Poll, though "non-partisan and independent," identifies itself as a "media-sponsored public opinion news service." Funding for the Institute comes from the subscriptions from media sources, including the San Francisco Chronicle. DiCamillo told me that he and Field read five newspapers a day, and from this they make judgements as to what sort of polls might interest their subscribers. As he put it, as researchers they try to "make news." These questionnaires are designed to not only assess public opinion but to create headlines.

And so I wonder how the questions about nuclear power were phrased to the telephone respondents. I wonder if they were designed to show a change of opinion, because this is more news-worthy than the same-old, same-old.

I'm imagining a question, say, "What are your top three issues concerning government policy?" Someone might answer, "Uh, gun control, and reduced military spending, and welfare reform." And then a headline could read, "Environmental Issues Not a Priority." Had the question read, "Is the environment a top priority for our government to address?" a majority might have responded to the prompt and said, "Oh, yes." Then the headline would read, "Environment a Top Priority for California Citizens." Do you see what I'm getting at?

Did DiCamillo and Field design a survey that asked, "Do you support nuclear power?" Or, "Do you support clean, efficient sources of energy such as nuclear power as an alternative to electricity, in the face of our current energy crisis?" Or, "Despite nuclear disasters of the past, do you support nuclear power plants in California?"

My colleague called Mark DiCamillo, posing as a journalist for a Russian-American newspaper. He asked if the Field Institute would conduct a survey concerning the opinions of Californians toward Russian immigrants. DiCamillo told him that sometimes a group of media sponsors will get together to request that a particular poll be taken, but that the Field Institute does not conduct polls for single organizations- unless that organization has "that kind of money." The energy poll, for example, cost about $100,000 to conduct, he told my colleague.

This is contradictory to what DiCamillo told me. He stated that the media subscribers are privy to the results of the polls, but do not in any way- individually or as a group- make direct requests for polls. He assured me that they do not pay for specific polls. And yet he seemed to be asking my colleague to make an offer- though $100,000 is clearly a bit out of reach for the imaginary budget of "Glasnost."

Outside of my budget as well is a subscription to the Field Poll. One can gain on-line access to the results of its polls for $200. This is for an individual subscription, of course- not the type of sponsorship that major news media organizations contribute. Of course, you can read the results of the poll in the Chronicle for 25 cents- or for free if you find a paper on the bus. But then you're reading spin on a spin. Makes me dizzy.

When people read the headline "Nuclear power's California Comeback," do they buy it? The Chronicle bought it- literally. Who else? Whether technically contracted or not, it appears that the Field Poll is most definitely for hire- and that the "opinions" of Californians may be not only purchased, but customized to order.

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