By Richard Morin
By Richard Morin
A recent national poll shows that public support for NATO's peacekeeping mission in Bosnia has never been higher a fact that likely wasn't reported in your newspaper or on the evening news, says Richard Sobel of Harvard University.
That's because the news media is still suffering from "post-Vietnam syndrome," Sobel says, leading reporters to fixate on domestic opposition to the Bosnia mission and frame the issue in overly negative ways.
In a forthcoming article in the spring issue of the Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, Sobel argues that most American news media, including The Washington Post, have mischaracterized public attitudes on Bosnia.
"Two intriguing anomalies about public opinion surround international intervention in Bosnia," Sobel wrote in a pre-publication draft of the article provided to The Post.
The first peculiarity lies in what Sobel sees as "the disparity between relatively strong public support for multilateral intervention and relatively weak government response in both the United States and Europe."
A second anomaly largely explains the first: The discrepancy "between comparatively supportive public attitudes on multilateral intervention and the reporting of those opinions in U.S. media stories that stressed opposition," he writes.
His exhaustive review of surveys in the United States and abroad suggests that public attitudes, as reflected in the public polls, have been either ignored or misreported in the media.
He cites more than a dozen media polls showing majority or plurality support for such actions as mounting air strikes against Bosnian Serbs, sending U.S. troops for humanitarian and peacekeeping missions, and committing U.S. soldiers to an international peacekeeping force.
How were those survey results reported? Not well, Sobel claims. He examined the 241 articles that discussed public opinion or polls that appeared in U.S. newspapers through 1996.
"The large majority of media reports about Bosnia did not mention public attitudes at all," he reports. "The small number of articles referring to public opinion about Bosnia stressed opposition for U.S. intervention, even in the presence of contrary evidence of support," Sobel says.
He found that the majority of those articles stressed opposition to U.S. involvement in Bosnia. "Only one in six reported that the public was generally supportive of some form of involvement. (One in three reported mixed attitudes or do not present a clear perspective.) Fully half emphasized opposition to various types of intervention in Bosnia. In fact, most reports highlighted opposition among Americans when, in fact, the U.S. public supported multilateral intervention."
He cites examples to illustrate how survey results were mischaracterized by the organizations that sponsored them.
In February 1994, ABC's "Nightline" broadcast a graphic titled "Should the U.S. Conduct Air Strikes Against the Serbs?" showing that only 18 percent of those interviewed in a network-sponsored poll supported air strikes. "The graphic did not, however, reveal that the actual ABC survey showed 57 percent approval of air strikes carried out by the United States 'along with its allies in Europe.'"
Why the startling difference? The answer lies in the wording of the questions asked. The "Nightline" graphic showing low support "left out the full question wording in particular, the words 'act alone.'" That's critical, as national polls consistently have shown that Americans reject going it alone to defuse trouble elsewhere in the world, but don't mind joining with other nations, as we did in the Persian Gulf War.
Actually, "Nightline" should have listened to the network's own pollsters. An ABC press release written by the network's pollsters had it exactly right, in terms of tone and substance: "Most Favor Bosnia Air Strikes But Only in an Allied Effort," the release read.
In the interests of full disclosure, Sobel also cites as a bad example a Washington Post National Weekly Edition column that I wrote in June 1995. The column reported the results of a national survey conducted by the Program in International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland. The column, Sobel wrote, stressed a big downward change in support for U.S. military action in Bosnia. "Although the drop was noteworthy, the Post Weekly had not reported the higher level of support .... Presenting evidence of opposition but not earlier support reflects the pattern of the media's portrayal stressing disapproval."
Another example of the media behaving badly in respect to public opinion on Bosnia occurred just last month, when the University of Maryland reported the results of its latest survey on attitudes toward the Bosnia operation. For the first time, it found that a clear majority supported U.S. participation in NATO's peacekeeping efforts. More than half also supported extending the NATO mission, and committing U.S. troops beyond the June deadline.
Are these numbers news? Apparently not: Neither The Post nor The New York Times reported these survey findings, even though no fewer than two dozen stories about Bosnia have appeared in each paper.
"When elites decry the public's ignorance of foreign affairs, they might better note their and the media's failure to inform Americans fully," Sobel writes. "In a democracy dependent on a free and fair press, the public and politicians deserve a full reporting of the attitudes of the American people on important issues like military intervention. This was clearly not the case in the reporting of support for multilateral U.S. action in the Bosnia conflict."
Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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