Yet we do know certain things about [public opinion]. One of the most important findings of the pollsters over the last twenty years is that public attitudes are rarely changed by mere exhortation without all the facts, on all sides, to provide the context and to assure the reader or listener that he agrees, rather than that he is being pushed. The concept of mobilizing opinion by a campaign of hortatory slogans is fallacious. For all of us in the profession of journalism that point has vital significance, no matter what medium we serve. It suggests that public opinion is crystallized or changed by the force of persuasion and argument only if, as a condition precedent, entirely different forces have first been at work. People generally resist being told what to do or think. They want to know all the facts and then make up their own minds about the merit of the opinions of others and of suggested courses of action.
This may well be the lesson we can draw from the Cincinnati experiment, conducted by the American Association for the United Nations and the United Nations Association of Cincinnati, aided by the Stephen H. Wilder Foundation. Their objective certainly represented an essential goal of a democratic people in a shrinking world: “to demonstrate how a community may become so intelligently informed on world affairs as to be a dynamic force in the creation of an ordered, eventually a peaceful world.”
The campaign started in September 1947 — a period of relative serenity, with the United Nations heavily involved in procedural debates. Literature on the United Nations was given to every public school child and every teacher. Church and PTA meetings were devoted to the subject. At more than 225 meetings special speakers appeared, documentary films were shown, and thousands of pamphlets were distributed. Newspapers and radio gave special emphasis every day to information about the United Nations. Everywhere in the city slogans urging support for the United Nations were exhibited in enormous numbers: on blotters, matchbooks, street car cards and billboards.
Yet this mammoth campaign descended upon the people of Cincinnati with all the impact of a whisper in a boiler factory. On two central aspects of the United Nations — its main purpose and the existence of the veto power — almost exactly the same percentage of the population had knowledge after the six-month campaign as before it. The same percentage of people who praised the United Nations before the campaign praised it afterwards — and for the same things; so did an unchanged percentage blame it — and for the same things. The citizens of Cincinnati were just not susceptible of mobilization by exhortation alone, even of the most concentrated, disinterested and saturating kind.
— Frank Stanton, The People Must Know: An Analysis of the Key Role of Information in a Free Society, concluding address at the 49th Annual Journalism Week of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Columbia, Missouri, 1958.
I see Stanton’s point, but I’m not totally convinced. The brief description that he gives of the Cincinnati experiment suggests that only a fraction of the population was actually exposed to the pro-UN efforts. Is it possible that people, especially those who were already opposed to the UN, might simply have ignored the literature and lectures? The fact that few, if any, of the citizens learned anything new from the experiment suggests to me that it just hadn’t interested them, or that they had already made up their minds. But that’s just my (mostly uninformed) take on this.