Meetings don’t accurately measure public opinion
Congressman Paul Ryan just announced a new round of “listening sessions.” One will be from 1 to 2:15 p.m. Thursday, May 3, in the Monte Carlo Room, 720 N. Wisconsin St., Elkhorn. Another will be from 9 to 10:15 a.m. Friday, May 4, at the Holiday Inn Express, 3100 Wellington Place, Janesville.
This announcement reminded me of a new study by three science communication researchers. A UW-Madison news release says the researchers found that town-hall-style meetings may provide useful insight about the range of views on a controversial issue, but they’re unlikely to accurately measure overall community opinion.
To be fair, their research might not have focused on the types of meetings Ryan often holds and the sorts of issues he discusses.
The researchers say their findings are especially true when the issue involves deciding where to put a controversial facility, such as a nuclear power plant, biohazard lab or even a cellphone tower.
“Using public meetings may actually promote policy choices that are diametrically opposed to public preferences,” according to an article in The Scientist authored by Andrew Binder, an assistant professor at North Carolina State University who earned his Ph.D. at UW-Madison, and Dietram Scheufele and Dominique Brossard, both faculty members in the UW-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communications.
Their conclusions come from studying an issue familiar to many at UW-Madison: The process of selecting a site for the Department of Homeland Security’s new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. Madison was an early contender for the facility. Madison had proposed putting it on UW land near Lake Kegonsa.
The researchers looked at the site-selection process in six locations that were finalists for the facility. They looked at how Homeland Security rated community acceptance, then compared those ratings to what they learned from surveys taken in those communities and interviews with local journalists, policy-makers and community leaders.
They concluded: Homeland Security underestimated actual public approval. In communities where community acceptance was rated relatively low, it turned out that many residents were supportive. The department likely was unduly influenced by vocal public opposition, the researchers say. So were people in the community.
“Citizens mistakenly saw the climate of opinion as overwhelmingly negative, influenced in part by contentious public meetings and the resulting news coverage,” the authors say.
Do you think “town hall” meetings that politicians hold also skew perceptions of public support or opposition for policy issues? After all, many times supporters fill these meetings or perhaps even are hand-picked. If the media report on the discussions, doesn’t the public get a slanted view of support or opposition on a particular issue?