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Misreported Polling Data Fails an Informed Citizenry

MUCH is said about the importance of having an informed citizenry. But this objective gets shortchanged when Americans are being deluged with false or misleading information that often is presented as objective fact.

Two recent reports and the way each was handled illustrate the extent of the confusion that can result. "Eighty-one percent of teens report sexual harassment," was the shocking June 2 headline in USA Today. It told readers that "sexual harassment has reached `epidemic proportions' in schools...," a conclusion based on a survey done by Louis Harris and Associates for the American Association of University Women's Educational Foundation.

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The reader was able to learn, deep into the account, something that raised questions about both the report and its sensational beginning.

Readers of some other papers weren't as well-advised: The Hartford Courant headlined its coverage, "Four of five teens sexually harassed in school, survey says," and nowhere cited anyone who questioned the data.

The survey was in fact flawed in a way apparent in the most cursory reading.

The questionnaire began by telling its respondents - public schools students in grades 8 through 11 - that sexual harassment could be perpetrated by "students, teachers, other school employees, or anyone else," and that it encompassed a wide range of acts.

You were being harassed, for example, if another student "made [unwanted] sexual comments, jokes, gestures, or looks," or, again unwanted, "showed, gave, or left you sexual pictures, photographs, illustrations, messages, or notes."

Now, if such acts constitute sexual harassment, the only surprising thing is that the proportion reporting their "victimization" at some point "during [their] whole school life" wasn't 100 percent. Growing up in the sheltered school system of Saco, Maine, in 1945-55, I sometimes heard jokes that attempted sexual humor so crudely, I found them a little offensive, and sexually explicit language in settings where I (and many classmates) found it embarrassing.

By lumping minor events such as being exposed to an unwanted sexual remark from another student, with major violations such as being coerced to have sexual intercourse, or sexual pressure from a teacher, the Harris survey for the AAUW's Educational Foundation does more than convey misleading information; it encourages the trivialization of a serious subject.

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Neither the report nor any news account I have seen noted that the 81-percent figure was wildly out of step with the findings of other surveys.

For example, in a study of teenage girls done by Yankelovich Partners April 13-14 of this year, 29 percent said they had been subject to some form of sexual harassment by a peer. (Respondents supplied their own definitions.) This is hardly a number to encourage complacency, but it's also one far removed from the figure that captured the headlines.

The number of adults saying they have at some time been harassed sexually falls typically in the 20- to 30-percent range.

A second misleading survey report, just released, involves a study done for the Harvard School of Public Health by LH Research, on the subject of gun control. Newspaper accounts focused on the finding that a majority of Americans - 52 to 43 percent - now favor a total ban on the possession of handguns, unless a court explicitly grants an exception.

In releasing this extraordinary result the study's author, Louis Harris, observed that it was the first time a majority of Americans had ever been found to favor such a ban. Indeed it is. Readers should note that Mr. Harris no longer has any ties whatsoever with the company he founded and which still bears his name: Louis Harris and Associates. His present firm, LH Associates, is entirely separate from and independent of his original firm, and vice versa.

Harris attributed his unique finding - that a majority now backs a total ban on handguns - to a great "sea change" in public attitudes. In fact, the source clearly seems to be in the survey itself.

The question comes far into a long series in which respondents are presented with item after item involving guns and violence to children. Thus they are told that one death in every four among teenagers 15 to 19 years old comes from a gunshot injury, that gunshot wounds to kids aged 16 and under doubled in central cities between 1987 and 1990, etc.

After so extensively establishing a form of "response-set bias," the survey then asks its handgun ban question and gets its unprecedented - and predictable - result.

A huge amount of work has been done on gun control. Americans indeed want to see more restrictions, including mandatory registration, including mandatory registration of all types of guns and a ban on semi-automatic weapons - often called "assault" rifles.

But only a distinct minority, in the 30-percent range, say they would prevent civilians from owning either handguns, shotguns, or rifles. Unfortunately, some survey reports and other such purported findings simply cannot be taken at face value.

Consumers need to approach data skeptically, and the press needs to develop more effective means for assessing accuracy.

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