08/15/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

CSM, WSJ Respond to Criticism of Claim of Plurality for Honduran Coup

On Sunday, I wrote a piece here criticizing the Christian Science Monitor, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and Reuters for inaccurately reporting a poll result to claim that a plurality of Hondurans supported the coup against President Zelaya.

The Wall Street Journal has now published a "Corrections & Amplifications" note attached to the original piece and the Christian Science Monitor has published a response to the criticism to which the original article is now linked. There has been no public response yet, as far as I am aware, from the Washington Post or Reuters.

Credit where credit is due: both the CSM and WSJ have now in some form publicly acknowledged the dispute and provided an explanation. (In hindsight, the inaccuracy of the original CSM and WSJ reports is arguably more clear-cut than that of the Post and Reuters reports -- see below.)

But the responses leave some central questions unanswered: did these outlets rely on the Honduran newspaper La Prensa as a sole source? If so, why? Will they act differently in the future?

To recap: here are the original reports as they appeared in the four outlets.

Christian Science Monitor, July 11:

Although Zelaya supporters have marched daily since his ouster, a CID-Gallup poll published Thursday showed that 41 percent of Hondurans found his ouster justifiable, compared to 28 percent who oppose the coup.

Wall Street Journal, July 10:

Complicating matters, Honduran media published a CID-Gallup poll that showed 41% of Hondurans said the coup was justified, while 28% were opposed. The survey, conducted between June 30 and July 4, supported anecdotal evidence of anger at Mr. Zelaya. While thousands of Hondurans take to the streets almost daily to protest the ouster, larger crowds often demonstrate in favor of the coup.

Washington Post, July 9:

According to results of a Gallup poll published here Thursday, 41 percent of Hondurans think the ouster was justified, with 28 opposed to it.

Reuters, July 9:

A CID-Gallup survey published in La Prensa newspaper on Thursday showed 41 percent of respondents considered his ouster justified versus 28 percent who were against it. The other 31 percent said they did not know.

Here's how the same poll was reported by three other outlets:

New York Times, July 10:

And a new CID-Gallup poll showed the extent of the polarization there. According to a face-to-face survey of some 1,200 people, 46 percent of Hondurans disagreed with Mr. Zelaya's ouster and 41 percent said they approved of it.

Associated Press, July 11:

Back in Honduras, a new CID-Gallup poll indicated that citizens were split on the coup, with a slight majority appearing to oppose it.

Forty-six percent said they disagreed with Zelaya's ouster and 41 percent said they approved of it, according to the face-to-face survey of 1,204 Hondurans in the days following the ouster. A further 13 percent declined to answer.

Voice of America, July 9:

Según la más reciente encuesta de Gallup un 46% de la población desaprueba el golpe de Estado contra el presidente Manuel Zelaya mientras que el 41% lo justifica.

[Rough translation: According to the latest Gallup poll, 46% of the population disapproved of the coup d'etat against President Manuel Zelaya, while 41% justified it.]

[The Voice of America report is particularly relevant because it interviewed Carlos Denton, president of CID-Gallup Centroamérica, giving this report added credibility, obviously; note that it preceded the WSJ and CSM reports, showing that different information was available at the time of those reports.]

As the WSJ and CSM now explain in their responses, there were two related questions asked by CID-Gallup in the poll commissioned by La Prensa, but La Prensa only reported one of them -- the one appearing more favorable to a pro-coup position.

According to the website Bloggings by boz, which says it got the questions from CID-Gallup, the first question was:

¿Considera usted que las acciones que tomó Mel Zelaya con respecto a la cuarta urna justificaban su destitución del puesto de Presidente de la República?

[Rough translation: Do you consider that the actions that Mel Zelaya took with respect to the fourth ballot justified his removal from the office of President of the Republic?]

To which the responses were: Yes 41%, No 28%, Don't know/No answer: 31%.

The second question was:

¿Cuánto está usted de acuerdo con la acción que se tomó el pasado domingo que removió el Presidente Zelaya del país?

[Rough translation: How much do you agree with the action that was taken last Sunday that removed President Zelaya from the country?]

To which the responses were: Support 41%, Oppose 46%, Don't know/No Answer 13%.

The difference between the two questions seems fairly clear. The first is a hypothetical: do you think that President Zelaya's actions with respect to the referendum justified his removal from office? The second describes the events that actually took place: do you agree with the action that removed President Zelaya from the country?

And the difference between the responses also seems fairly clear. 18% of the sample were "Don't know/No answer" on the hypothetical but opposed to the actions that actually took place.

Apparently, La Prensa only reported the first result. (I couldn't find the original La Prensa report on La Prensa's website -- if you can find it, please post a note in the comments.)

And then, it appears, the WSJ, the CSM, the Post and Reuters reported what was in La Prensa without doing any independent checking; whereas the VOA, the New York Times, and AP reported the poll result directly, without relying solely on La Prensa -- thus strongly suggesting, to say the least, that independent checking was quite feasible.

And then the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor compounded the error by using the word "coup" in their reports, which clearly refers to the actions that actually took place, to which 46% were opposed, not 28%. Thus, with the benefit of hindsight -- having access to both questions and the responses -- there is still no defense of the original CSM and WSJ reports as accurate.

Whereas the Washington Post and Reuters reports are arguably more borderline, since they referred to whether the "ouster" was "justified," which is arguably somewhat closer to the first poll question than the renditions in the Monitor or the Journal. Yet many readers were likely misled by the Post and Reuters accounts [and of course the Reuters account appeared in other press], since both give the impression of approval and opposition to the actual events that took place, rather than to a hypothetical, to which one-fifth of the sample who were opposed to the actual events that took place didn't respond. [Note that the New York Times also used the word "ouster," while the Wall Street Journal used "coup" and "ouster" interchangeably.]

So, the discrepancy between the different press reports last week is now explained. But questions remain. There seems to be a widespread view that La Prensa's actions were unethical. Some say this is not surprising, because La Prensa is a pro-coup newspaper, with a history of publishing inaccurate information. But American readers should not be expected to know that a report based on Honduran press might be less likely to be accurate (ironically, the Washington Post report appeared in a rare piece about the pro-coup, pro-elite bias of the Honduran media -- as blogger BoRev suggested, all the more reason that the Post should have been vigilant.)

Did these four outlets rely on La Prensa as their sole source, and if so, why? Is it the usual practice of these outlets to rely on papers like La Prensa as a sole source? And do these outlets plan to do anything differently in the future?