Zogby on bath salts: when the narrative drives the poll. Or: #OpinionFail

Bath salts. They’re pretty scary.

But are they quite as scary as some would have you believe? Over the years, the spread of nominally-legal drugs like those labeled “bath salts” or others that simulate the effects of marijuana have crept to near-ubiquitous popularity in head shops all over the country. All while most of us weren’t really watching. Now that the media is watching, sometimes the reports can get a bit ridiculous.

This blog is certainly not above discussing the topic. We’ve talked about fake weed, we’ve explored the common components of bath salts. And we’re not even remotely above having a little bit of fun with face-eating zombies. Still, our objective at this blog is to inform about the science behind the headlines, and I feel certain we’re not sensationalizing anything. Then, there’s this poll from Zogby:

IBOPE | Inteligência Plurality of Adults Say Law Enforcement Not Doing Enough to Combat ‘Bath Salts’ drug Craze

The poll finds 51% of US adults familiar with bath salts, and 47% unfamiliar, a third of which are not at all familiar with the drug (32%). When asked if law enforcement is doing enough to prevent the use of bath salts, 22% they were doing enough, 37% say law enforcement could do more and 41% are not sure.

Ok. Quick math… (carry the one)…

So, 59% of Americans have an opinion on a subject that only 51% of Americans say they’re familiar with? At what point do we simply discard a poll altogether? I would have thought this was it, but instead, Zogby runs with the headline, “Plurality of Adults.” And by plurality, they mean 37% of Americans – a number unlikely to win any election this side of Canada. The reality of this poll is: nearly half the country doesn’t know what the hell Zogby pollsters are talking about and somehow, six percent decided to say, “fuck it,” and render an opinion anyway.

But it drives a sense of urgency. It drives the narrative and more importantly, it drives readership. “A plurality” of your fellow citizens think this is a big deal, so you probably should, too.

Politics Technology

Your crazy aunt with the chain emails now joins 50% of seniors online

President Obama is a socialist Nigerian who wants to give you M&Ms for life if you fill out this survey about the girl who needs a kidney that was stolen from a dude left on ice in a bathtub. Its true. And watch for spiders on the toilet seat, while you’re at it.

And if you think these emails are going away any time soon, guess again. Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life project reports that for the first time, a majority of seniors over the age of 65 – 53% – now regularly use the Internet. Or email, which by leaps and bounds continues to be the aged set’s weapon of choice in the information wars.

While about a third of seniors use social networks, a whopping 86% use email.

Meanwhile, the growth trend for seniors continues with gadgets, as well. 69% of seniors report having a mobile phone, up from 57% two years ago.

Elsewhere in the land of magical thinking known as Opinion Poll Land, a sizable majority of Americans polled by Pew think the government has a role to play in curbing childhood obesity. But on the same day and without an apparent trace of irony, Zogby releases a poll saying three-quarters of Americans oppose the Bloomberg plan to limit the size of sodas sold in public spaces.

Its worth noting that “bans” never sell well with Americans. And what Bloomberg proposes is not so much a “ban on large drinks” as it is a “limit to the size of drinks,” which might have polled better. But it begs the question: if this plan is so unpalatable (pardon the pun) to Americans, what exactly does the “role of government” in curbing obesity look like, exactly?

Media Technology

What the hell is media and how does it work?

Pew Research released a new set of polling data this week, exploring the media landscape and how users interact with it. Specifically, the polls seek to define how people learn about their local communities through the various media channels we have these days. There’s a whole lot of data, here, though the final report is sadly lacking some of the statistics that are presented in the summary. The report could also have used the help of good infographic specialists, as the graphics contained therein leave something to be desired.

I’m not an infographic guy, myself. In fact, I’m colorblind. Fail. But I can put together a spreadsheet and have Excel print out some pretty graphs, so I thought I’d rearrange some of the data in more illuminating fashion. For example, the poll breaks up media consumption by age, pointing out that age does seem to determine a lot of our preferences, web vs. print vs. television. Here’s a pretty stark example of just how profound that shift is, between age groups:

Political news consumption, by age, by medium. Source:

A couple things jump out at me about this infographic, though.

The first is: there is no data about how this graph might have changed over time. When looking at this graphic, the first conclusion one might draw is that paper and television media are going the way of the dinosaur. And that might be true. But it might also be that print and television media appeal to an age group rather than a generation, meaning once the under 40 go-getter set breaks through that most depressing of barriers, they may suddenly find themselves craving a copy of the New Yorker and a glass of warm milk.

Print journalism is, after all, a slow medium with lengthy articles. Print explores topics at great depth and with nuance, as opposed to screaming headlines on trendy new websites. Print is not the kind of thing young people necessarily have the time or patience for. Television is a passive medium, meant to be watched while relaxing, which is not a thing most thirty-somethings can afford to do.

The other question this graphic raises, also associated with a lack of context, is whether this graph may have looked identical forty years ago, had the choices been between print, AM radio and television? We have no way of knowing whether this graph represents a genuine shift away from print media or simply a general preference in our society for the newest technology.

On the web, however, we’re dealing with small enough of a timescale to justify making some pretty solid conclusions from the next graph, representing the respondents’ preferences for how to share news content on the web. This is of particular interest to those of us who are curating content on the web, of course, but it also demonstrates how deeply the social networking trend has penetrated how we use the Internet:

How content gets shared on the web, by method. Source:

Email remains king, which I have to say, must be the case for people who aren’t me. I barely send or receive any emails at all, getting most of my info through either RSS feeds or social networking. The choices in this poll are a bit strange, but it strikes me that “customize home page,” might be interpreted as posting to a social network? If not, I’m not entirely sure what it does mean, as Geocities has been gone quite a while. If it does, then 19% is an impressive number.

And I guess I don’t wonder anymore why local news media insists on including comments sections on their sites. Given the stunning lack of decorum often displayed in those comments, I’ve always thought of them as more of a burden than a benefit. But if that many people honestly contribute comments, then you can’t turn those eyeballs away, can you?

Final Thoughts: What is “Media,” anyway?

In centuries and decades past, “media” has been shorthand for the various news sources that use different types of “media” – as in the plural for “medium” as in the stuff that carries the information, television waves, paper, radio waves. But in a digital world, the medium is the same in all cases, save for actual printed documents. Print “media” may have a problem on its hands if indeed the era of printed news is over: many people work in the factories that produce printed documents and many billions of dollars are invested in those machines that, if paper is irrelevant, are tits-on-a-bull impossible to sell.

I mention this not only because my belief is that “television,” even if it transfers to all-digital service, still remains the same passive pastime requiring mostly the same equipment and staff. I mention it also because the lede for stories bearing this polling data has been that young people prefer online-only media even over local print media available online. Well, honestly: if you’re 18 years old right now, you have never known a world without the Internet in some form. The distinct lines the rest of us aged citizens draw between specific technologies and mediums are probably significantly less important to the whipper-snappers coming up behind us.

In other words, most of the concepts in this poll may be completely irrelevant and even flumoxing to the very people we’re trying to understand. And the data is probably badly skewed as a result, or will be.

Media Politics

Conflation in Infographic Form

What an odd juxtaposition. Pew Research conducts a poll asking people if they will watch the President’s speech on jobs and the Republican Presidential Primaries. Now, I realize the media did a great job manufacturing a crisis over the whole scheduling snafu between these two. But really? Could they be more different?

One is a speech by an actual sitting president about a hugely-pressing issue. The other is a bunch of near-strangers discussing what they *might* do if, a year and a half from now, they’re allowed to become president. One doesn’t require or preclude the other; they don’t even happen on the same day, if you noticed. But Pew puts the two together as though there was some insight to be gained in their comparison.

Most Plan to Watch Obama Jobs Speech | Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.


Are Movies Getting Crappier, or Just More Expensive?

One of my favourite haunts on the Internet is, where Nathan posts some of the coolest charts anywhere on the Internet. As a political blogger, I’m very used to looking at trendlines for public opinion, economic indicators and the like. But when I get to use some of that – admittedly limited – analytical prowess to view completely different types of data, its a real treat. For example:

Visual evidence that movies are getting worse.

Nathan’s contention is that, because the polarization increases over the years, that means that the movies are getting worse. The theory being that if everybody loved it, the movie must have been better.

That would probably be true if there were no other factors involved. But I rather think that the price of the movie – and its attendant expectation level – is also a powerful driver of the division. If I get to watch a movie for three bucks on a Saturday afternoon, I’m less likely to require it to blow me out of my seat. But if I have to shell out eight bucks? I better get a fucking cameo.

Which brings up another big thing for me: comedies should be no more than an hour and a half, period. After that, you’ve just overstayed your welcome and played the joke out. But I think the pressure to make a movie worthy of the huge sums they make us pay compels directors to include more of the movie than should have been.