Today was a big case of fail from our media. The bogus story? A claim that 64% of Republicans believe President Obama was born outside the United States. POLITICO's accurately written writeup, which used significantly more appropriate wording, was swiftly featured on the Drudge Report. POLITICO, however, seems alone in reporting it fairly.
Here's the question, which could be answered as true, somewhat true, unlikely, not at all likely, refuse to answer, or do not know: "President Obama is hiding important information about his background and early life."
That's it. No mention of his birthplace, no hinting at his citizenship, no allusions to Kenya. A simple: do you believe the President is hiding something?
So judge the question as you will, but journalists have no business stretching answers to this question into a headline like that employed by Think Progress' Adam Peck, who felt it appropriate to revise his story's headline from an initial "64% of Republicans are Birthers" to "As Many as 64% of Republicans are Birthers." The first statement is untrue. The second is as likely as the odds of President Obama actually being from Kenya.
But why don't we see what the survey's author, Dr. Dan Cassino, thinks of the interpretion of his question? His full statement to me is below:
I'm happy to see the media attention that our latest release on belief in political conspiracy theories has received, but I do think it's important to avoid over-interpreting results. 36% of registered voters in the US - along with 64% of registered Republican voters - believe that President Obama is hiding important information about his past. Is this birtherism? Well, it's a broad definition, one that was designed to reduce reactivity among respondents. Asking people if Obama was born in Kenya, for instance, leads to lots of hedging and hang-ups, and lots of people hiding their true feelings. Respondents who respond positively to the question are embracing elements of claims made by birther conspiracy theorists. Does it mean that they're embracing all of those claims? Of course not. Do 64% of Republicans think Obama was born in Kenya? Almost certainly not. How many believe which elements is a question for a future study: a difficult one to carry out because of respondent reactivity, but a worthwhile one, nonetheless.
As a political psychologist who studies motivated reasoning, I'm much more concerned with the aggregate belief in conspiracy theories, and how political knowledge and media exposure impact those beliefs, and I'd point interested readers to the full press release, which deals with these topics in a more in-depth way than some of the media reports.
But this is like those surveys that find some amazing proportion of Americans think that UFOs "might" be true - It's a survey written to produce a big number, not to discern meaningful facts about public opinions. I don't doubt the sincerity of Dr. Cassino, but even I imagine President Obama is hiding something from his past. It'd be far more surprising to discover any politician not hiding something from their past. As such, the question is essentially meaningless.
Mediaite's Noah Rothman also wrote up a response to Salon, Think Progress, and Gawker. Read it here.