Part 3—What the AP has reported: The AP’s ongoing project about “racial attitudes” got its start in 2008.
In 2009, five academics explained how the whole shebang got started. As we noted yesterday, their report appeared in Public Opinion Quarterly.
As we noted yesterday, their explanation was transparent nonsense. This is part of the eway it began:
PASEK ET AL (2009): Long before election day 2008, long before the country even knew who the major parties’ nominees for President would be, forecasting models predicted a win by the Democratic Party's candidate. These predictions were based upon a common set of indicators, including the health of the national economy and approval of the incumbent President. The average predicted vote share for Barack Obama across the 9 models shown in table 1 was 53.3 percent, a little smaller than the 53.7 percent that President Obama eventually earned...Astonishing. In fact, Obama ran ahead of McCain in almost every poll in the summer of 2008. In the November election, as the academics noted, he ever so slightly outperformed the forecasting models to which the professors referred!
But during the summer of 2008, the numerous polls being reported by the news media did not find an Obama lead. For example, as shown in figure 1, the ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll documented essentially no difference between the candidates’ share of the vote among likely voters until late September. Why was this? Even during the summer, the national economy was doing badly and in serious decline, the United States was involved in two wars that were not obviously succeeding at achieving their goals, and approval of President Bush was remarkably low. Furthermore, the proportion of the nation that called itself Republicans had been declining steadily over the prior months. These and other key factors that are thought to influence election outcomes pointed toward a greater Obama lead than was being observed.
Faced with this puzzle, a team of researchers at Stanford University and the Associated Press worked together to generate a series of hypotheses about what might explain Mr. Obama's lagging performance and to test those hypotheses with data from a new survey.
But so what! A team of researchers—and the AP—proceeded with their attempt to explain a “puzzle,” a “lagging performance” which simply didn’t exist! This ridiculous origin story pretends to explain how a major journalistic project got started.
That is the way this nonsense began. Last Saturday, the AP published its latest report from this ongoing project.
On-line, the Washington Post published the AP’s full report. (In its Sunday hard-copy paper, it published a shortened version.) If that origin story was transparently bogus, this latest report is transparently odd—and race is a very important topic, a topic which ought to be reported with great care.
Do you understand what the AP claims in its new report? This is the way Sonya Ross and Jennifer Agiesta began:
ROSS AND AGIESTA (10/27/12): Racial attitudes have not improved in the four years since the United States elected its first black president, an Associated Press poll finds, as a slight majority of Americans now express prejudice toward blacks whether they recognize those feelings or not.According to this AP report, “a slight majority of Americans now express prejudice toward blacks whether they recognize those feelings or not.” This racial prejudice “has increased slightly since 2008,” the AP reported.
Those views could cost President Barack Obama votes as he tries for re-election, the survey found, though the effects are mitigated by some people’s more favorable views of blacks.
Racial prejudice has increased slightly since 2008 whether those feelings were measured using questions that explicitly asked respondents about racist attitudes, or through an experimental test that measured implicit views toward race without asking questions about that topic directly.
In all, 51 percent of Americans now express explicit anti-black attitudes, compared with 48 percent in a similar 2008 survey. When measured by an implicit racial attitudes test, the number of Americans with anti-black sentiments jumped to 56 percent, up from 49 percent during the last presidential election. In both tests, the share of Americans expressing pro-black attitudes fell.
“51 percent of Americans now express explicit anti-black attitudes,” Ross and Agiesta reported. That compares with only 48 percent four years ago.
That said, “the number of Americans with anti-black sentiments jumped to 56 percent” when respondents’ sentiments were “measured by an implicit racial attitudes test.” This was up from 49 percent in 2008.
(On both of these tests, “the share of Americans expressing pro-black attitudes fell” as compared to 2008, the AP also reported. Do you understand what that means?)
Is it possible that a majority of Americans now express prejudice toward blacks? Is it possible that this many people “now express explicit anti-black attitudes?” Everything is possible, of course—and race has always been the most destructive force in American history.
That said, race is a very serious topic. You’d think a major news org would want to explain what sorts of “explicit anti-black attitudes” those people are now expressing. In what ways did all those people display these “explicit anti-black attitudes?”
A serious news org would want to explain that. Eventually, Ross and Agiesta made a half-hearted attempt:
ROSS AND AGIESTA: The AP developed the surveys to measure sensitive racial views in several ways and repeated those studies several times between 2008 and 2012.According to that passage, respondents displayed their “explicit anti-black attitudes” in their responses to a series of statements about black people. But Ross and Agiesta included no examples of the statements to which they were asked to respond. Nor did they attempt to describe what respondents said about the way those additional highlighted words apply to blacks and whites.
The explicit racism measures asked respondents whether they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements about black and Hispanic people. In addition, the surveys asked how well respondents thought certain words, such as “friendly,” “hardworking,” “violent” and “lazy,” described blacks, whites and Hispanics.
The same respondents were also administered a survey designed to measure implicit racism, in which a photo of a black, Hispanic or white male flashed on the screen before a neutral image of a Chinese character. The respondents were then asked to rate their feelings toward the Chinese character. Previous research has shown that people transfer their feelings about the photo onto the character, allowing researchers to measure racist feelings even if a respondent does not acknowledge them.
“Implicit racism” was measured in a separate way, the reporters explained. Researchers were able to diagnose “racist feelings” through respondents’ reactions to a series of images.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at the series of statements about blacks and Hispanics to which people were asked to respond. In our view, these questions are often just as bogus as the ridiculous origin story those professors published in 2009 in that high-ranking journal.
We'll look at those statements tomorrow. For today, let’s consider the obvious problems which lurk in this new AP report, even before we explicitly review the way these surveys worked.
For starters, you have to have a lot of faith in the academic class to report these findings as matter-of-factly as the AP did. As experienced, presumably skeptical journalists, do Ross and Agiesta really believe that a gang of professors from Stanford and Michigan can measure “prejudice toward blacks” and “racist attitudes” with the degree of precision they describe in this new report?
For unknown reasons, the professors in question don’t even know that Obama led in almost all national polling during the summer of 2008. Why would skeptical professional journalists simply assume that these orange-shoed researchers know how to measure the important traits described in this new report?
Tomorrow, we’ll look at the specific questions employed by these “Men in Orange.” But good God! There isn’t a hint of journalistic skepticism in Ross and Agiesta’s wide-eyed reporting. And uh-oh:
Obvious problems seem to emerge in the peculiar passage which follows. In this passage, Ross and Agiesta refer to the academic surveys in question as a poll:
ROSS AND AGIESTA: The poll finds that racial prejudice is not limited to one group of partisans. Although Republicans were more likely than Democrats to express racial prejudice in the questions measuring explicit racism (79 percent among Republicans compared with 32 percent among Democrats), the implicit test found little difference between the two parties. That test showed a majority of both Democrats and Republicans held anti-black feelings (55 percent of Democrats and 64 percent of Republicans), as did about half of political independents (49 percent).Uh-oh! One would think that well-trained, skeptical professional journalists would wonder about several points:
Obama faced a similar situation in 2008, the survey then found.
First question: According to Ross and Agiesta, the professors came up with two separate ways to measure “prejudice toward blacks,” “racial prejudice,” “anti-black attitudes” and “anti-black sentiments.” And yet, one of their measures found much more racial prejudice among Republicans.
Their second measure “found little difference between the two parties.”
If the two measures differ to that extent, doesn’t that suggest the possibility that at least of the measures might be wrong? (Perhaps both measures?) Not to these intrepid reporters, who cruise right past the significant chasm between what the two measures found.
Second question: In each of these surveys, significant numbers of Democrats “express racial prejudice.” In the so-called implicit measure, some 55 percent of Democrats were found to “hold anti-black feelings.”
Those numbers are intriguing. As everyone knows, significant numbers of Democrats are in fact black or Hispanic. If 55 percent of Democrats were shown to hold “anti-black feelings,” doesn’t that suggest the possibility that quite a few black respondents were found to harbor such feelings? If not, wouldn't that suggest that white Democrats must have displayed more “anti-black feelings” than white Republicans did?
Black people can hold anti-black feelings, of course. Similarly, women can be misogynistic and Catholics can be anti-Catholic. But please note: Although Ross and Agiesta were eager to tell you how many Democrats, Republicans and independents were shown to hold “anti-black feelings,” they never tell you how many black respondents “hold anti-black feelings” as well!
Why didn’t our intrepid reporters give us that information? We can’t answer that question. But even a mildly skeptical observer could imagine one possible answer:
If substantial percentages of black respondents were allegedly shown to “hold anti-black feelings,” that would make almost anyone wonder how valid the AP's measures may be. It would undermine confidence in the professors—in those men of vast erudition, the orange-shoed fellows who still seem to think that Obama trailed in the national polling all through the summer of 2008.
The orange-shoed fellows who were willing to write that! In a professional journal, no less!
Question: Should the basic competence of these professors simply be assumed? Tomorrow, we’ll look at some of the questions they posed to their respondents. In our view, our question then answers itself.
Race is a very serious topic. Are Ross and Agiesta serious journalists? And should we assume that those orange-shoed profs are actually serious analysts?
Tomorrow: The questions they asked