Polling Irish people can not identify terrorists among refugees

by Niamh Kirk

This weekend the Sunday Independent led with the results of their poll into opinions on the safety concerns of terrorists among refugees.

ino headline

Not everyone was happy with the headline or the results. The main criticisms were against the interpretation of the results in the headline and then more widely against the Sindo for running the poll at all.

The headline, as all are was designed to grab attention and succeeds at that. It reads Poll: terrorists hide among our refugees.

The main problem with this was the potential for it to be interpreted as: a poll has found terrorists among refugees. But given the survey was of Irish peoples worries over the safety of the refugee programme, it is difficult to see how terrorists could even be identified.

Research tells us that there is no correlation between opinion polls and the number of terrorists among refugees. Such is the amount of times the UK media had made such incorrect allusions in the wake of the 7/7 bombings it was researched by Dr Maria Sobolewska. She states “I can say with certainty that public opinion polls have no value for estimating the number of prospective and likely extremists and terrorists.”

The Sindo article is telling only about Irish worries, it has no correspondence to the real world refugees coming to Ireland. And as a stand-alone statement ‘poll: terrorists hide among our refugees’ it is a misinterpretation of what the survey did and even could find.

But headlines do not stand alone, regulators rarely considers them in isolation, and so perhaps nor should we.

The poll  it says was taken the days after the Paris Attacks which is a little like polling for concerns for bad politicians in the days after a national election. But then this is not a general poll on an infra ordinary day designed to give a ‘general idea of peoples opinions of refuge’, it is a specific poll about a highly topical, complex and sensitive issue at a time when the story is still unfolding. The merits of this can be to track public opinion as events progress, the limits are it offers a one dimensional snapshot of a complex situation.

And it is this ‘honing in’ on the area refugees and if people think they will be a safety concern as a headline issue and in the absence of a wider array of perspectives that emerged as the second criticism.

The Sindo would no doubt and reasonably argue that such information would be of high interest to their audience, that general opinions on this topical issue is of ‘public interest’ and the reporting meets all the standards expected in terms of being accurate, fair and balanced. Which can all be validated in the data.

The counter argument goes something like this.

The headline along with the article do more than just offer basic information on public opinion, but give the impression that it is reasonable and valid to be concerned about terrorists because the majority of the population do. And that in turn some people could be caused to be cautious of refugees because of it. And that this is not a reasonable concern to propagate.

It is a question of media influence, what messages are encoded into news content and the extent to which they are filtered by readers.

We are far cry from accepting the hypodermic needle concept of there being a dominant message in the news that the public passively absorbs. Audiences filter and negotiate news into their wider understanding of the situation. But the power between producer and audience is not an equal one. The media do not exactly tell us what to think, but they do suggest to us what to think about.

The Sindo article asks us to think about whether there are terrorists among refugees.

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