Framing Of Polls On Energy Solutions Guides Coverage

Our guest blogger is John Wihbey, an environmental journalist writing for the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media.

Opinion polls are fueling politicians and candidates to push for more U.S. offshore oil drilling, with the media looking on intently. Since the issue became a political focal point in June, polling has been relentless: Zogby. Rasmussen. Field. Gallup. Quinnipiac. CNN. Bloomberg. The list goes on. All point to an increasing public desire to lift a moratorium on more domestic drilling.

It’s a rough reality check for the climate change movement: the American public increasingly seems willing to walk — or drive — away from climate change concerns, as high gas prices trump principle. But as with all polls, the framing is paramount and the media’s interpretation crucial.

Notably, a Gallup poll widely cited by the press beginning in June — precisely the time President Bush, Senator John McCain, and Governor Charlie Crist of Florida all began advocating for more drilling — did not ask respondents to choose from alternatives. It simply asked if they would favor or oppose drilling to “attempt to reduce the price of gasoline.” And 57 percent said they were in favor, a factor alluded to by Crist in his decision to reverse his position and support more drilling. Another influential, and crucially timed, poll by Zogby, released June 20, asserted that 74 percent of Americans favor offshore drilling, but it too did not present options.

Media outlets cite the Gallup and Zogby polls often, and often without qualification, despite Gallup’s note:

The responses to this type of question do not provide information about the relative acceptability of the idea of each of the alternative proposals taken separately, but rather more simply reflect a forced-choice preference.

Some polls, though, do show nuance when they ask multi-part questions. Keith Johnson, a longtime energy reporter who now writes the Environmental Capital blog for The Wall Street Journal, said in an e-mail interview that survey questions should be parsed carefully:

In polls in which the question is something like, “Do you prefer more drilling or more investment in alternative energy?,” alternative energy usually comes out ahead.

For example, a new poll by the Public Policy Institute of California showed that 51 percent of state residents support more drilling; but it also showed that 83 percent want more federal funding for wind, solar, and hydrogen technology. A new Quinnipiac poll bolsters that case, polling Ohioans to find that “57 percent call for renewable energy sources” such as solar power, wind power and fuels as the best way to address the energy crisis, but only “20 percent support drilling in Alaska and currently protected offshore sites,” with similar results in Florida and Pennsylvania.

Read more at the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media.

UPDATE: Progress Illinois’s Josh Kalven notes that in “a July poll by Belden Russonello & Stewart, 76 percent of respondents said that ‘investing in new energy technology including renewable fuels and more efficient automobiles’ was a more important government priority than ‘expanding exploration and drilling for more oil’:


The Huffington Post’s Sam Stein reviews other polls, noting that 63 percent of the Belden poll respondents said that opening up public lands to oil and gas drilling was “more likely to enrich oil companies than to lower gas prices for American consumers” and that similar numbers blame oil companies for high gas prices. SolveClimate’s David Sassoon has more.