More than ever before, the news media rely on polls as a way to
gauge public reaction to political candidates, policy questions and
other issues in the news. The data collected by such surveys is
typically used two ways: first, to tell audiences what Americans
think about a particular question; and second, as an internal guide
for the news organization as it plans future coverage.
But if the wording of the question is skewed, the pollís results
may actually misinform both the public and the news organization
that paid for it. A case in point was a poll conducted by ABC, which
made it seem as if the public wanted to see Microsoft punished after
a recent court finding of monopolistic behavior.
In fact, ABCís pollsters never gave citizens the option of saying
Microsoft should be left alone, but a poll for Fox News found that a
plurality (47%) picked just that option.
The long-running case landed back on the publicís radar on April
3, when Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson ruled that the company had
illegally "maintained its monopoly by anti-competitive means." The
next phase of the case, which will unfold over the next two or three
months, is supposed to determine what penalties, if any, are to be
imposed on Microsoft as a consequence of this ruling.
find out what the public would prefer, pollsters working for ABC
News asked 1,010 adults. "What do you think will be the best thing
now: for Microsoft to keep operating as a single company, but under
some controls; or for Microsoft to be broken up into several smaller
companies?" The interviewers were instructed to rotate the two
choices, so that half of the respondents were given each option
Just over half of the respondents (53%) said Microsoft should
remain a single company with controls placed on its behavior. Fewer
than a quarter (23%) said the company should be broken into several
At the same time, Fox News was asking 900 registered voters their
own question, which began with a sentence summarizing the recent
ruling: "This week a U.S. District Court judge ruled that Microsoft
has gained monopoly power by engaging in anti-competitive practices.
Do you think it would be better for computer users if Microsoft: (1)
is forced to pay a fine and change its business practices; or, (2)
if Microsoft is broken up into a few smaller companies; or, (3) if
Microsoft is mostly left alone?
There are two major differences between the wording of the Fox
poll and the ABC poll. First, Fox asked which option "would be
better for computer users," wording that implicitly reminds the
respondents that penalties could have either positive or negative
consequences for Microsoftís customers. Second, the Fox poll
included the obvious third option that ABC ignored: leave Microsoft
Here are the results of the Fox poll: 21 percent wanted to see
the company broken up (about the same as the ABC poll), while 15
percent opted for a fine and changes in Microsoftís business
practices. Nearly half (47%) said the company should be left alone.
Intriguingly, nine percent of those questioned for the ABC poll
volunteered the opinion that Microsoft should be left alone. Thatís
a relatively large percentage of people to reject all of the
pollsterís choices and offer one of their own, and itís a signal
that their views on the issue are well-established and unlikely to
change. Taken together, the two polls seem to indicate that the
public would prefer that the case end with the least possible
disruption to the software marketplace.
ABCNews.com posted a
story detailing the ABC pollís findings, and while it included
the fact that nine percent rejected any government controls of
Microsoft, it failed to point out that these were volunteered
responses. The text of both the ABC poll and the Fox poll (including
other questions asked about the Microsoft case) is available at
PollingReport.com, an independent and nonpartisan collector of
public opinion data.