Media should be careful with polls about critical race theory
Three polls released in the past several months attempt to measure public opinion about critical race theory — asking respondents about the topic in general, how often they’ve heard about it, and whether they agree with it’s alleged use in elementary schools. However, none of the polls assess whether respondents accurately understand critical race theory, so given right-wing media spin on the topic, outlets must be cautious in reporting their results.
Critical race theory dates back to the 1970s and was introduced by legal scholars as a framework for analyzing American history and recognizing the long-standing effects of institutional racism. According to founding critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw, the theory is an advanced discipline used to understand how racism has affected U.S. laws and how those laws impact people of color.
Nevertheless, right-wing media, and Fox news specifically, have breathlessly and incessantly reported that critical race theory is being used to teach children that one race is superior to another. Fox has characterized the theory as “racist,” “Marxist,” and one that punishes people for being born white. Hosts then gave a platform to activists trying to ban critical race theory from being taught in public schools.
In fact, Fox is so obsessed that the network mentioned critical race theory nearly 1,300 times from March through mid-June — which is exactly why the media need to be so cautious with opinion polls on the topic.
The primary problem with public opinion polls about critical race theory is the same problem that frequently arises in surveys about nuanced policies or topics. Surveys are quantitative research methods that often use closed-ended questions. Therefore the polls don’t measure the respondents’ understanding of the topics. For example, a participant’s answer to a question about critical race theory may depend on whether they’ve been exposed to Fox’s characterization.
Politico ran into this problem with a recent poll that featured closed-ended prompts including “Do you support or oppose ’critical race theory’ being taught in K-12 schools in the U.S.” and “Does ’critical race theory’ have…” with response choices of: “A positive impact on society,” “No impact on society,” “A negative impact on society,” or “Don’t Know / No Opinion.”
The Economist and YouGov released a similar web-based poll this month that featured something called “skip logic,” which changes what question a participant sees based on their answer to the previous question. This poll asked respondents if they’d heard of critical race theory, and those who answered that they have were asked whether they understood it. Those who answered yes to both questions were asked if they approved or disapproved of critical race theory, but the poll doesn't measure whether respondents correctly understand it.
Based on the answers, The Economist/YouGov poll found that 58% of respondents who have heard of the theory and at least think that they understand what it is disapprove of it. That does not mean 58% of all respondents do, but right-wing media still reported that over half of all U.S. adults disapprove of the academic theory.
Both Politico and The Economist/YouGov poll were web-based interviews, which are generally regarded as less reliable than telephone polls.
In addition to the inevitable limitations of quantitative research on nuanced topics, poor phrasing and ordering of questions — either accidental or purposeful — can have a significant impact on responses.
In an April 2021 poll by Competitive Edge Research, the questions included trying to measure whether respondents thought students should be “exposed to different opinions” or “only be exposed to ideas the teacher or the school believes are correct.” The questions then turned to measuring how important respondents think it is that students 18 and under are taught about social equity, prepared for the workforce, taught about critical race theory, and taught that their race is the most important thing about. Later questions included whether white students should be assigned the status of “privileged” and whether students should be taught that America was founded on racism.
Purposeful or not, leading questions like this which are informed by a false understanding of critical race theory are bound to produce skewed results. Right-wing media wasted no time reporting that this poll proved 74% of respondents don’t want their children given “‘white privilege’ training.”
As this topic becomes increasingly polarized across the country, media -- and pollsters -- need to be extremely aware of both the limitations of surveys and the questions being asked, in order to prevent inadvertently contributing to the bad faith coverage.