Put six hundred people together in one place, canvas their opinions over a weekend, and what do you get? The National Issues Convention. James Fishkin, chairman of the department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin, and executive director of the National Issues Convention, discusses the "deliberative poll, " a new method of researching public opinion. See the National Issues Convention live on PBS over the weekend of January 19 -21, 1996.
NATIONAL ISSUES CONVENTION SPECIAL
January 19, 1996
A question from Craig Woods:
I am seriously interested in the NIC process. Although the current political process is not as broken as the press makes it sound (or, if so, it has been this bad before and we have all survived...) but this process may offer a real possibility to improve the overall process.
How do the questions or maps get written? How do they prevent subtle or overt bias in the questions? After years of being manipulated by the print and broadcast media, I am skeptical of the ability of the media to achieve neutrality.... :-)
Dr. Fishkin responds to Craig Woods:
Thanks for your comments. There are two kinds of questions--the questions in the "before and after" survey, and the questions posed by real citizens, in face-to-face meetings with experts and presidential candidates. The questions in the survey were put together by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago, and by a distinguished academic committee headed by Phil Converse of the University of Michigan.
The face-to-face questions from the sample come not from the media, but from the citizens after they have had a chance to talk about them in small groups. We think that group discussion is empowering. Instead of people asking questions off the top of their heads, they ask questions as representatives of their groups, raising issues that the group has decided are important. They feel a responsibility to ask the questions the way that their group framed them, and they feel empowered to follow up their questions because they represent their groups.
As for 'the ability of the media to achieve neutrality,' if you are asking about how the press will cover what transpires here, I should add that 60 or 70 reporters participated in several pre-Convention seminars about the challenge of covering the National Issues Convention (under the auspices of the Poynter Institute and The American Press Institute ). It's gratifying that they're making this effort to use this weekend's events as a catalyst to spark some innovative reporting.
A question from Hamilton Rogers:
I'm not sure what I think about deliberative polling because I've seen so much abuse in polling in general. The framers of questions in a standard poll can influence to a great extent the outcome of the poll itself. So why couldn't a deliberative poll likewise be manipulated by the framers of the information feeds?
Dr. Fishkin responds to Hamilton Rogers:
We are interested in the change, before and after, and the question is asked in the same way both times. Our questions have been vetted by a committee of leading academic public opinion researchers who have done everything possible to eliminate bias from the questions. No questions are perfect but the traps are well known and every effort was made to avoid them. In addition, the briefing materials were reviewed by a bipartisan committee to make sure that they--like the questions--remained unbiased. Nothing is perfect, but we did our best.
A question from Rebecca Steinbach:
How do you plan to minimize the impact of passionate or charismatic speakers on listeners' ability to objectively judge substance?
Dr. Fishkin responds to Rebecca Steinbach:
The moderators of the small groups are experienced moderators of small-group discussions and have been running such discussions for the Kettering Foundation, and the National Issues Forums, often for as long as fifteen years. They have been trained to prevent any one person from dominating the discussion, and they have been trained to involve all members of the group in the deliberations. They will make every effort to keep the substantive dimensions of issues in the foreground--although individuals' personal experiences, and the passion some may bring to their accounts of those experiences, are also valid parts of the small groups' interactions.
Moderators will make sure that the group keeps sight of all of the points raised. (I'm assuming you're talking about the speakers in the small groups. If what you mean are politicians, then Jim Lehrer is the moderator, and we have a lot of confidence in him. The questions will be serious, and the atmosphere should be substantive, allowing for a real dialogue on the issues, without cheering crowds or campaign banners).
A question from Dena Ringold:
As a civic education project, how will the deliberative poll encourage its participants to cast a critical eye on the media and political candidates who are running the show?
Dr. Fishkin responds to Dena Ringold:
The deliberative poll attempts to reframe the issues in terms that make sense to ordinary citizens. If it works, people should view ordinary polls and ordinary candidate forums and negative soundbites with a more critical eye. Watching ordinary citizens intelligently discuss issues of national importance will, we hope, empower and encourage other citizens to inform themselves and discuss the issues in their own families and communities.
Comments from our visitors, in addition to those answered by Dr. Fishkin
RE: Deliberative Polling
A wonderful experiment, but as has probably already been said, the premise ASSUMES that the goal of polling is to gauge the public's will. That may be the pollster's and academic's goal, but the primary EFFECT of polling in our culture is its effect on political action and power.
For politicians, the goal of polling is NOT to measure the public's will and values, but to assess the political marketplace: to identify strategies and routes to political POWER and influence. These have less to do with values and preferences, and more to do with emotions, assumptions, ignorance, conflict, fear, and hatred of one's fellow countrymen.
If the real-world EFFECT of polling in a mass media democracy is its effect on political action and posturing, then existing polls which measure the public with all its ignorance, fear and anger, is of more use to the politician than deliberative polling. So the real world effect of deliberative polling will be less than that of traditional polling. Politicians are unlikely to discard the political advantages which spring from public fear, ignorance, and anger in favor of deliberative polling which more closely reflects the nation's true values. Politicians want power, not national values. Power springs from the nation's fears, ignorance, hatred and anger, as much or more than from our core values and rational policy preferences.
Your study should be expanded to address these larger issues, and how to influence of the uninformed upon our our leaders with our core values rather than with our ignorance, fears, and anger. Identifying these core values will prove inadequate, as this will not lead to mass market political power, as does following existing polls.
Richard M. Weiss
The National Issues Convention will no doubt make for compelling and informative television and should provide the candidates and their camps with some valuable information. Yet I wonder what lasting contribution these discussions will make toward improving the state of the American family.
One of the most alarming trends we face is that American culture has
become increasingly more vicarious in all phases of our familial interactions. We expect government institutions to educate our children, to correct their anti-social behaviors. We look to television and other consumption-oriented institutions to provide their entertainment and socialization. In the European cities I visited, families go out into the streets and visit with each other. People are "out and about" in society, not cocooned behind locked doors, held captive like so many passive ghosts to the flickering blue light of rows and rows of television screens. The barrenness and isolation of our social lives is looked upon as strange and sad by European visitors.
Here when we actually go out and socialize, it is only as an afterthought of the pursuit of commerce--on our way to and from shops at the large suburban malls. European cultures certainly do not have a lock on positive social values, but their family units, if not more viable, seem at least to be degenerating more slowly than ours. Why? Perhaps one reason for this is that in general, they are more prone to go out and live, while we are becoming increasingly more content with watching and feeding off of the intense experiences of others.
How can you claim that this is a national issues conference when you have already decided what the issues are in your predefined agenda!!!! (The economy, The Family and International Affairs)...
You should at least have included "Miscellaneous" for all of the folks that believe in a more participatory form of democracy.
The idea that you can assemble a "representative" "sample" of "America" is ridiculous as a means of cognition, and deceptive in the extreme.
I thought the days of "Scientific" quantification of individuals were left behind at the Berlin Wall. How disturbing to find them alive and well here in the U.S. and funded by my tax dollars.
Is there any place in your program for the expression of truly dissenting views? As you may know there has been a considerable debate on the Internet regarding the mechanisms and, indeed, the advisability of hyper-democratic reforms. As it turns out, I have become one of those who is deeply concerned with the direction of these efforts.
It seems to me that a "deliberative poll" does not, unfortunately, address the basic problems with polling, voting and participation, with all due respect to your efforts. Have you provided any mechanism for people to express views which question the very premise on which the NIC is proceeding?
Thank you for your attention to what probably seems to be an annoying and unsolicited inquiry. But, what's the Internet for anyway?
Believe significant viewership would tune in to this type of forum on a regular basis. Too bad it's only a one-time thing.
Alvin D. Hofer
I think the greatest failure of American education is not in the three "R's"; it is the failure to prepare citizens for participatory democracy.
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