01 November 2017

Shaping Public Opinion

"You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant."

--Harlon Ellison

Where do you get your news? How much do those sources influence your opinions on public policy, presidential leadership, or the country's overall direction? 

Four major platforms distribute news to U.Ss.adults. The list below shows each forum and the percentage of adults who often get their information from those sources: 

News Sources for Adults





Source:  Pew Research Center 

According to Pew Research, "TV's staying power over print is buttressed by the fact that Americans who prefer to watch news still choose TV, while most of those who prefer to read the news have migrated online."

The digital platform continues gaining strength. The number of Americans who ever get news on a mobile device has gone up from 54% in 2013 to 72% in 2016, according to the same Pew study.

Here's another dimension to the online consumer--they're more likely to get news from professional outlets than from friends and family--but just as likely to think each provides relevant information.  

How we decide

Nearly 140 million Americans, or 60.2% of the voting-eligible population, cast a ballot in November's 2016 elections.

One year from now, those registered will have an opportunity to vote on political leadership and address their concerns about relevant issues at the ballot box. With that in mind, let's look at how public opinion has historically been shaped and formed. 

Twenty-five years ago, pollster Daniel Yankelovich wrote about how people decide in FORTUNE Magazine. His main point: "That views evolve from the unstable and flip-flopping to the mature and solid."   

Does that idea hold a quarter century later?

In the past, the public has gone through different stages of thought when confronted with public policy changes such as health care, immigration, or tax reform. Here are scenes from public opinion to the public judgment, which Yankelovich found in his own studies:

Stages of Public Opinion

Stage 1:   People begin to become aware of an issue.

Stage 2:   They develop a sense of urgency about it.

Stage 3:   They start to explore choices with the issues.

Stage 4:   Resistance to facing costs. 

Stage 5:   People weigh the pros and cons of alternatives.

Stage 6:   They take a stand intellectually.

Stage 7:   They make a responsible judgment morally and emotionally.

Thinking differently?

Is it still possible for a voting public to go through seven decision-making stages? Is breaking news short-circuiting processes of careful thought? Does the media change anyone's mind, or are most minds made up, including those of self-described independents?  

How do you decide?

A recent article in USA Today reported that 75% of those surveyed called "incivility" a national crisis, and 59% said they have quit paying attention to national politics.

Voter disengagement makes it more difficult for politicians to know which stage a particular issue has reached.  

Mr. Yankelovich observes: "Leaders attempting to communicate with the public without this information (knowing the stage) risk gridlock and frustration. Why? Because to communicate with the populace, a leader has to know where people are coming from, where they stand in their thinking now, and where they are headed."

At the same time, there's a significant role for elected officials (presidents, governors, mayors) to offer clear and compelling arguments for the direction they wish to go.    

Public policies need purpose, timeliness, and clarity to succeed. Therefore, simple policy themes, speaking to a common good, are critical for the electorate to decide what or whom to support, as the ultimate poll is taken on election day. 

Wisdom is scarce

The Internet--Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Twitter--provides easy access to reporting and commentary, and targeted advertisements. (Facebook alone delivers 517 million ad impressions per hour.) So how are voters supposed to make informed judgments based on those sources of political news and opinions? 

Discernment is certainly needed when relying on media outlets that are long on clicks and short on credibility.  

A survey from American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research finds media's popularity at the bottom, along with Washington politicians. According to Gallup tracking data, with 2,014 adults surveyed, only 6% expressed "a lot of confidence" in the press, while the US Congress is at 7%.

When deciding, there may be some truth to an idea from 18th-century philosopher Joseph de Maistre who said: "Every nation gets the government it deserves."


(C) Bredholt &  Co.