Information Initiatives (from Pew Prospectus 2010)

Source Organization: The Pew Charitable Trusts

Author: Donald Kimelman


03/26/2010 - Last October Mike Thomas, a columnist at the Orlando Sentinel, wrote a page-one broadside about political pandering to senior citizens. Thomas criticized congressional Republicans and President Obama alike for proposing an additional Social Security payment to seniors that, he argued, would add $14 billion to the debt burden facing the young.

AARP backed the measure, arguing that the recession is taking a particularly heavy toll on senior citizens. After summarizing the advocacy group’s points, Thomas wrote, “Now listen to reality.”

“Reality” was research and analysis from a major 2009 poll by the Pew Research Center on how Americans of all ages are coping with the recession. It included this passage, quoted by Thomas: “The most compelling story to emerge from the survey is that older adults are living through what for them has been a kinder, gentler recession—relatively speaking. They are less likely than younger and middle-aged adults to say that in the past year they have cut back on spending; suffered losses in their retirement accounts; or experienced trouble paying for household or medical care.”

Thomas’s citation was a familiar use of the Pew Research Center’s findings: to inject a dose of unbiased data into a politically charged debate. The center, called by another columnist “antiseptically nonpartisan,” produces timely studies on major issues of the day and has no agenda beyond truth-telling.

It’s a “fact tank,” a reliable source of impartial information in a world rife with spin.

In the spring of 2009, at a time when President Obama was riding high in the polls and Democrats were still celebrating their big majorities in both houses of Congress, the center published a report on political values that proved prescient. A survey of 3,000 Americans had found that, despite a marked decline in Republican identification, there was “no consistent movement away from conservatism, nor a shift toward liberalism.” Indeed, compared to a survey two years earlier, fewer Americans said the government had a fundamental responsibility to provide a safety net for its people. And while there was overwhelming agreement that government should do more to make health care affordable and accessible, nearly half expressed concern about the government becoming too involved.

Those findings prefigured the tough sledding the Obama administration would face in building a case for health care reform. It turned out that while the public would grudgingly support emergency measures to prevent economic collapse, such as the bank bailouts, it was warier about a more sustained expansion of government’s role—and the Pew Research Center had identified that nuanced distinction.

While surveying the American public about issues and values is a core part of the Pew Research Center’s mission, its footprint is broader.

Last fall, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life completed a prodigious, three-year demographic study of Muslims around the world. Analyzing hundreds of data sources, it produced the most authoritative count to date of Muslims—at 1.57 billion, they are a quarter of the world’s population—plus estimates of Muslim populations in every country and region.

The Pew Global Attitudes Project continued to probe worldwide opinion about American leadership and other matters of transnational concern. It found that Obama’s election had led to a sea change in attitudes: Not only was the president himself highly popular in Europe and most other parts of the world, but esteem for America itself had improved markedly since President Bush’s final year in office. The one dark shadow was in the Muslim world, where the new president’s persona and policies had hardly dented entrenched anti-Americanism.

Back in this country, the Pew Internet & American Life Project did some truth-telling of its own on the important matter of broadband Internet adoption. In studies and in briefings with officials of the Federal Communications Commission, the center dispelled the notion that investing billions in expanding broadband availability would lead to a quantum leap in public use. The biggest reason that people did not use broadband, the project found, was neither availability nor price; it was the perception of many Americans that the Internet is not all that relevant to their lives.

The Pew Research Center is best known for its survey research. Its president, Andrew Kohut, is one of the country’s most respected pollsters and a firm believer in the value of bringing the views of ordinary people into the public debate. “The American public is typically short on facts,” Kohut has written, “but often long on judgment.”

In recent years the center has broken new ground in areas where essential data were simply missing. Its demographic portrait of America’s 12 million undocumented immigrants has been widely accepted by stakeholders on all sides of the immigration debate. The center caused a stir last year with a finding that nearly three-quarters of the children of undocumented immigrants were born in this country and thus citizens, further complicating an already complex issue.

The center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism has carved out its own truth-telling niche. It daily monitors a representative sample of 55 news organizations— print, broadcast, cable and online—to produce authoritative reports on the topics and tone of media coverage. It found, for instance, that coverage of the recession was largely focused on developments in the nation’s political and financial capitals and only rarely explored the impact on ordinary people.

The Pew Research Center publishes fresh reports and analysis on a wide range of topics on a near-daily basis, all of it readily available at pewresearch.org. Telling the truth is its only agenda.

Donald Kimelman
Managing Director, Information Initiatives, The Pew Charitable Trusts

Read more about Pew's work in Pew Prospectus 2010 (PDF).

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