As of late, the American media eye has been fixed on the political protests and general unrest in Madison, Wis. Having grown up and gone through the Wisconsin public school system under the 14-year-long reign of ex-Gov. Tommy Thompson, I’m no stranger to the delicate relationship between blue-state constituents and red political officials. As someone whose father was a union worker all his life and has many friends and relatives who work in the Wisconsin public school system, I’ve kept one ear tuned in – OK, half-tuned in – to what’s happening at the capitol. I’m not here to get into a heated debate over the MIA congressmen or the absentee teachers or Gov. Walker’s take-no-prisoners approach to “compromising” because, thankfully, this isn’t a political blog and I don’t have to!
What I want to talk about is the coverage of this fiasco and how the media is (mis?)appropriating research terms. In a February 24 episode of Hannity’s America on Fox News, Sean Hannity continued his coverage of the mayhem in Madison with pollster Frank Luntz conducting a “focus group” with Wisconsinites who were asked to comment on the tumult. Without exposing my political leanings too much, I will say that I am not familiar with Hannity’s show and had to go back to watch the entire thing to put this so-called focus group into context.
Check out this clip (and those accents!):
It got me to thinking, what is a focus group? My research instincts tell me this isn’t it. Is a pollster qualified to lead a focus group? Would the respondents have been selected differently had it not been for a national television program? Would the respondents have behaved differently had it not been for a national television program? How does having an obvious television camera rather than a discreet wall-mounted recording device in a private room change the group dynamic? Does cutting to commercial breaks upset the natural flow?
The object of a focus group is not to inform the public but to inform a client seeking information. Who is the client in this scenario? Cui bono?
It seems that research-y terms are thrown around quite a bit in mainstream media as a way to add credibility to the topic at hand but it could be doing research a disservice in the process. Does something like what Hannity’s America did cheapen research? Is the average American intelligent enough to discern between pop culture research and the true practice?
I’m not sure exactly what we’re watching in the clip above, but the terms forum, panel of constituents or town hall-style discussion all seem better suited than focus group.