Our chapter on public opinion explains that the wording of surveys can have a big impact on the results. The Pew Research Center recently drove this point home with an experiment:
To better understand how the manner in which the government’s surveillance program is described affects public evaluations, the Pew Research Center conducted a question wording experiment in a national telephone survey fielded between July 11 and 21, 2013 among 2,002 adults. The survey respondents were asked whether they would favor or oppose a government data collection program, but the wording of four elements of the program were described differently to different groups of respondents. These are: whether metadata or content is being collected; whether phone calls or emails are being monitored; whether the program has court approval; and whether the program is part of anti-terrorism efforts.
Mentioning the role of courts and describing the program as part of anti-terrorism efforts each had a substantial effect on public sentiment. Among the roughly 1,000 respondents who heard the government surveillance program described as occurring “with court approval,” support was 12 points higher than among the other 1,000 who heard no mention of courts. This is consistent with the findings of a separate Pew Research Center survey, which found that people’s impressions of whether or not there is adequate court oversight of the program are more strongly linked to overall support an opposition than are other perceptions.