Media / Media Bias

aBC's misleading Terri Schiavo poll

By arthur Weinreb

Friday, March 25, 2005

aBC News commissioned a poll to gauge the attitudes of americans about what should happen to 41-year-old Terri Schiavo. The poll also elicited opinions on whether the U.S. Congress overstepped their bounds when they passed legislation to have Schiavo’s situation reviewed by federal courts.

The poll that was released on March 21 was conducted the day before and consisted of telephone interviews with 501 adults. It was said to be accurate within plus or minus 4.5 points.

Of those people that were polled, 44 per cent told the questioners that they followed Ms. Schiavo’s case either "not so closely" or "not at all".

The results of the poll were widely publicized both by aBC and other media. On the aspect of the poll that dealt with what should happen to Terri Schiavo the most reported fact was that 63 per cent of those polled felt that her feeding tube should be removed while 28 per cent were opposed to the actions that were ordered by the courts.

What was not widely reported was the actual question that those who were being polled were asked to answer. That question was as follows:

"Schiavo suffered brain damage and has been on life support for 15 years. Doctors say she has no consciousness and her condition is irreversible. Her husband and her parents disagree about whether she would have wanted to be kept alive. Florida courts have sided with the husband and her feeding tube was removed on Friday. What’s your opinion on this case — do you support or oppose the decision to remove Schiavo’s feeding tube? Do you support/oppose it strongly or somewhat?"

although the actual question mentions a feeding tube, the facts that were set out made no mention of the fact that Terri Schiavo is not unconscious, at least in the way we normally think of unconsciousness. She appears to be awake and goes through cycles of being awake and sleeping. She at least appears to respond to certain stimuli around her. By the use of such phrases as "been on life support for 15 years" and "she has no consciousness", the question implies that Terri Schiavo is comatose and being artificially kept alive, not just being fed, by mechanical devices such as a ventilator. This is grossly misleading and relevant, especially in the light of the fact that 44 per cent of those that were being polled followed the case either not closely or not at all.

This poll clearly illustrates how media polls can be manipulated to get a certain result by the way the facts are presented to people who have little or no knowledge of the subject matter. The result of this portion of the poll — that 63 per cent of people approve the removal of the feeding tube while 28 per cent are opposed, is absolutely meaningless because of the way the facts were set out. It is also misleading to give the results of the poll without providing the facts that were given to the respondents before their answers were elicited.