We in the news business provide historians with some of the crucial data necessary to write the story of any particular point in time. Reporters gather facts and opinions that are snapshots of how people feel, and then we make every effort to put that information into perspective so that it’s meaningful and useful to readers. At its best, good journalism can help people make informed decisions.
Years from now, those who look back at the summer of 2010 will no doubt write about the BP oil disaster, the lingering international economic crisis, and Barack Obama’s withering public support. Perhaps those digging into what was happening in our little corner of the world might look at the results of the recent Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute/Smoky Mountain News poll results that have been published in this newspaper and online (www.smokymountainnews.com, “WNC Public Opinion Poll”) during the last couple of weeks.
The project, which we’re calling “Creating a Regional Policy Dialogue,” is the first of its kind in Western North Carolina. WCU professors Chris Cooper and Gibbs Knotts saw a dearth of hard data about how residents of this area felt about important political issues. They approached us about partnering to gather that information and then publishing the results. The poll called nearly 600 registered voters in Jackson County, and it was conducted by Public Policy Polling out of Raleigh. Public Policy Polling has earned a reputation as one of the most reputable polling agencies in the Southeast.
Some quickly write off polling data, and that’s not surprising given the sheer volume of such information on a national basis. But what’s unique — and extremely interesting — about this PPI/SMN poll is its subject matter. We now have a baseline of information about how Jackson County residents feel about certain political issues during June of 2010. That information is interesting in and of itself, as the stories on our website attest.
But perhaps more intriguing will be to update this information in six months or a year to see how the onslaught of media we are all exposed to can change opinions. Maybe we’ll find that the barrage of information doesn’t necessarily lead to quickly changing public opinion.
The demographics of Western North Carolina are unique. The traditional, conservative mountain residents are now intermingling with new faces from all over the country. Anecdotally, we know this is a place that values tradition and attracts alternative lifestyle advocates. It’s a dynamic populace that — along with the mesmerizing draw of the mountains — has made this area one of the most popular places in the country to live.
Our hope — that is, The Smoky Mountain News and the WCU Public Policy Institute — is that we can continue to accumulate polling data unique to our region that provides insight into what people are thinking and why. Anytime you can get voters to think about and discuss important issues, it will hopefully lead to better decision making by leaders. That’s a good enough reason in itself to try to continue and build on this regional project to assess the feelings of residents west of Buncombe.