Surveying the damage

I have mixed feelings about newspapers conducting their own polls. On on hand, it seems too easy: conduct a poll, interpret the data and you have a story. On the other hand, it allows them to quickly pounce on a story in the news that scholars might not touch for several years.

Often these newspaper surveys miss the potential religion angle or variable, but I've seen at least three compelling religion-related polls to consider this week.

First, let's look at The New York Times poll of 412 American Catholics' views on the Church. The data is interesting, but I'm not sure why it took five reporters to interview three people to fit the narrative they found in the survey:

Betsy Conrath, who is 60 and a retired weather broadcaster in Spokane, Wash., said in a follow-up interview: "They are not going to cover up any more and hope and pray it will just go away. Now that the pope has a handle on it, things will change.

"I have been totally saddened by all of this," Ms. Conrath said, "but I'm still very much a Catholic and have not lost my faith in my religion."

Norbert Wellman, 71, a retiree in West Point, Iowa, who worked for a chemical company and a state prison, said: "Since the news came out and was spread around in all the newspapers, they got the idea they're going to have to do the best they can to fix the problem. I think before, maybe, they thought it wouldn't get out."

...Mary Dunham, a 64-year-old quilter and crafter in Orfordville, Wis., said in a follow-up interview: "The sexual abuse issue goes back to the Vatican. They allowed it to be covered up for so long because they didn't want the church to look bad. Had a woman been pope, she wouldn't have allowed it. She would have strung up these guys herself."

These quotes are kind of lame and serve as padding for the set narrative, but the poll itself reveals some interesting numbers. Almost 80 percent of survey respondents said that their financial contributions to the Catholic Church have stayed the same and 82 percent say media reports have had no effect on Mass attendance.

For GetReligion readers, perhaps the most interesting number comes out of the news media treatment of the Catholic Church. Compared to the way the media treated other religions, 64 percent of respondents said that they have been harder on the Catholic Church, 3 percent said they have been easier, 30 percent said they have been the same, 4 percent had no opinion. Are you surprised by these numbers? Remember, this is media perception, which is interesting to evaluate.

Next, we have USA Today, which released a poll related to the National Day of Prayer.

One group was asked if they favored or opposed the National Day of Prayer or if it "doesn't matter."

About 57% of adults favor it, and 38% shrugged it off. Only 4.5% opposed it.

For most 18- to 29-year-olds, it could be the National Day of Whatever — 59% said it doesn't matter.

Those who most strongly favor it were Republicans (76%); women 50 and older (71%); and Midwesterners (71%) or Southerners (63%).

In case you forgot, the National Day of Prayer is tomorrow, so the poll should give other reporters some numbers to jump off of if they're looking for angles. Personally, I was surprised only about 5 percent of respondents oppose the day.

Finally, the Washington Post did a general news poll that included questions religion news observers will find interesting. First, they asked whether respondents preferred the next Supreme Court nominee to be Protestant, and 83 percent of respondents said it was not a factor, while 70 percent preferred someone with experience. The survey also asked whether respondents think Roe v. Wade should be overturned; 59 respondents said no while 38 percent said yes. About 35 percent of evangelical respondents said they identify with the tea party, when Quinnipiac University's poll in March found that one in five evangelicals identify with that movement.

Remember when we have several narratives going on about whether evangelicals were joining in with the tea party business? Unofficially, I haven't seen much excitement or activity in conservative Christian political action groups, though James Dobson did praise Rand Paul for identifying with the tea party movement. Theoretically, this gives us some data to consider at the grassroots level.

Journalist can often ask the survey firm for the phone numbers for people who reveal certain characteristics on their answers. This can be very useful because if, for example, you find people who are sticking with Catholic Church even if they disagree with it, a survey can't tell you why; you can call up and ask. However, reporters can fall into the trap of sticking with the obvious narrative. Reporters are often looking for concrete data to indicate what people believe. Surveys are one way to do this, and including at least one religion variable can be revealing.

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