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Media polls on constitutional change reveal bias

In a democracy, the people’s will is conveyed through representative government. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to rewrite the Constitution, but Article 96 requires the approval of at least two-thirds of the national assembly to do that, so in order to hasten the process he first wants to change Article 96 so that a “simple majority” of one-half the Diet is enough to pass amendments. It is assumed that after this summer’s Upper House election his Liberal Democratic Party will control both chambers of the Diet, but votes for individual candidates don’t necessarily reflect voters’ views on the Constitution, and so the media has been conducting public surveys in an attempt to understand the national mood with regard to the issue.

Last week Tokyo Shimbun published a letter from a 64-year-old lawyer who questioned the efficacy of such surveys. She cited a hypothetical poll in which a media outlet calls households based on a computer-generated selection of telephone numbers. Only 60 percent of these households “respond,” meaning the people at the other end answer the phone and then the questions. The survey team finds that 80 percent of the respondents reply “yes” to their question, and so imply that 80 percent of the population would say “yes” as well. But since only 60 percent of the households contacted even respond to the survey, the lawyer figures the most you could claim was that 48 percent of the population would say “yes.” Polling professionals will argue that a perfectly random sampling in this case can be extrapolated to mean 60 percent of the population at large. But the lawyer counters that the survey is conducted only over the telephone, specifically land lines, thus ignoring demographics such as young people or low income singles who tend to only use cellphones, if they own any phones at all. The limitations of the survey automatically calls into question its validity.

Moreover, when people read about these surveys or see them reproduced on TV news shows, if the results don’t jibe with their own opinions they feel marginalized and may be disinclined to participate in elections, since they think their vote will just be wasted. “What I want to ask the media,” the lawyer wrote, “is what exactly are the purposes of these surveys?”

One purpose seems to be to advance certain editorial positions, something the media will deny but nevertheless appears to be true, according to a related article in the same newspaper a few days later. The debate over changing the Constitution provides a clear example. On May 3, Constitution Day, almost every major news outlet published its own survey about amending the national charter. Tokyo Shimbun points out that if you read each article you find that the survey results don’t vary substantially from one media to another, but the headlines tend to reflect those aspects of the survey that support a particular editorial stance.

Yomiuri, Sankei and Nihon Keizai Shimbuns are all positive about changing Article 9, which renounces war and war-making capabilities, and so if you read the headlines it appears that the survey results advocate changing the Constitution since they all incorporate the word “support.” The Asahi and Mainichi Shimbuns, however, are “cautious” about revising the Constitution and thus tend to stress the word “oppose” in their headlines. But if you read the actual articles you could easily reach a different conclusion.

In fact, the responses sometimes contradict the headlines. The detailed results of the Mainichi and Asahi surveys actually advocate revision by a slim margin. And while the Yomiuri headline implies that its respondents do support revision, when it comes to specific questions the answers indicate something else. Respondents who said that Article 9 should be “kept as it is” or “not interpreted differently” together amounted to 54 percent, while those who support “a complete revision” of the article represented only 36 percent. It was a straight 50-50 split as to whether or not Japan should change its stance on “military power.”

As one political-science professor explains in the article, it’s useless to ask people if they want to change the Constitution. Many know that it was mainly written by the United States during the postwar occupation and for that reason they will say it should be changed. But each person has a different view of which portions should be changed, a distinction that surveys don’t always take into account. Headlines and analyses of results have the effect of “leading” readers to conclusions that aren’t at all conclusive. Of course, people who habitually access specific media probably already lean toward that media’s editorial slant, in which case survey analysis simply reinforces received opinions.

And comparing poll results isn’t helpful either. Asahi’s is conducted via post, while Yomiuri’s is done face-to-face, and though each company enumerates its responses, common sense says that people react differently under different interview circumstances. Most outlets use the telephone, and experts told Tokyo Shimbun that people tend to want to hang up when they realize a polling person is calling and so provide answers in such a way as to end the conversation as quickly as possible.

But the most troubling aspect of surveys is that they often avoid the reality that voters may not be knowledgeable about the issue at hand. In the case of the Constitution, it’s assumed that respondents already understand what’s at stake. A journalist on the Web discussion program DemocraTV recently remarked that in his experience the public believes the present Constitution is “a set of laws” that limits citizens’ rights, when in fact much of it was designed to safeguard rights. One of Abe’s goals in changing the Constitution is to downplay civil rights and promote civic responsibility, which is why changing Article 96 is so important to him. After that, it’s a piece of cake.

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