April 21, 2008


How does an opinion change?

People’s ideas about Wal-Mart gauged after detailed debate about retailer


Joe McIntyre/staff photographer   
A panel of SUNY Cortland faculty members and local Cortland County officials discuss the impact of Wal-Mart on America and the local economy with audience members Saturday on the SUNY Cortland campus. About 70 people participated in the discussion, which was set up to measure how people’s opinion about an issue change as they learn more about it.

Staff Reporter

As she ate her lunch in Old Main on the SUNY Cortland campus, Ashley Aurilio, a freshman from Buffalo, said she would now “think twice” before immediately running to Wal-Mart for supplies.
Aurilio and about 70 others participated in an interactive discussion about the impact of Wal-Mart on communities Saturday.
Two SUNY Cortland professors organized the event to conduct deliberative polling, which seeks to determine if the opinion of a person changes after he or she is exposed to more in-depth information.
“I came in knowing nothing about it, so hearing and getting to actually talk to community members was something I hadn’t done before,” Aurilio said, admitting that she would formerly go to Wal-Mart for just about everything.
After breaking into small groups to discuss issues relating to Wal-Mart — which will be building a Supercenter in Cortlandville within the next year or so — the participants in the deliberative dolling project gathered in Brown Auditorium to grill a panel of experts on the questions they came up with. The participants took a survey before they broke into the smaller groups and again at the end of the day after a final session with the panel of experts.
Chris Latimer, a political science professor at SUNY Cortland, and childhood/early childhood lecturer Karen Hempson attended a deliberative polling conference at Stanford University in September.
Student callers contacted about 750 people, both students and year-round residents, in an effort to recruit participants. Hempson said that having about 8-10 percent of those contacted actually show up to the event was statistically normal.
Hempson and Latimer decided that looking at people’s opinions of the impact of Wal-Mart throughout the country would be appropriate given the discussion on the subject that took place over the roughly five years the project has been in development.
Throughout that process, John Carroll of Virgil has been a steady supporter of the big-box store chain and was asked to be one of the experts who would try to answer the questions from the participants based on his “considerable background.”
“You can never have enough information, or be able to digest enough,” Carroll said before panelists took their positions on the stage.
Carroll said he had contacted Wal-Mart representatives but that the event “was not something they’d normally take part in.”
The panel of Wal-Mart advocates included Cortland Mayor Tom Gallagher and Cortlandville Town Board member Ron Rocco, neither of whom made any secret of their support of the project.
The panel of experts advocating the position that Wal-Mart is harmful included Jamie Dangler, sociology and anthropology associate professor; Tom Pasquarello, chair of the Political Science Department; and Stephen Halebsky, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology. Dangler is a founding member of Citizens for Aquifer Protection and Employment, or CAPE, which fought for years to prevent the construction of the Supercenter off of Route 13.
Before the panel discussion, junior Kevin Bahler of Williamsville said he had been in a group of about six community members and that their opinion on the matter had been pretty neutral. Bahler was selected and contacted at random, as were all of the participants.
“It’s a subject that is always under such debate, and there’s a lot of opinions on both sides without a lot of concrete facts,” Bahler said of the Wal-Mart debate.
Just by chance, some of the groups had heavily anti-Wal-Mart leanings and others had a heavily pro-Wal-Mart bent, while others were neutral.
During the panel discussion, a theme appeared to be why Wal-Mart was singled out for a bad reputation, despite its success in free-market America.
Gallagher and Carroll said they believed it was because the corporation was so visible, while Rocco contended that the opposition was spearheaded by unions but was also based in Wal-Mart’s employment policies and its sometimes spotty healthcare plans.
Pasquarello said he wasn’t sure if discussing Wal-Mart’s impact on the country as a whole was next to impossible, and that each community needed to decide if the chain would be a welcome addition. Locally, he said, Wal-Mart was a danger to the aquifer because of the Supercenter’s location over a recharge area for the underground reservoir.
Also, jobs gained by adding a Wal-Mart could take away from jobs at other retailers that could go out of business.
Halebsky pointed out that Wal-Mart is the largest and also the most vicious retailer when it comes to driving out competition, but stressed that such criticism wasn’t always lobbed at the corporation alone.
During the lunch break, Jay Beck of McGraw said that he thought the session had been informative. He said it was interesting to see the college educators debating elected public officials.
“It’s been informative. I’ve learned some things I didn’t know,” and maybe dispelled some biases, Beck said. “It’s not really a right (or) wrong thing, it’s a matter of getting the information out there.”
Beck said it would be impossible to determine whether the world is better off without Wal-Mart, but consumers do have a choice and Beck said that all that matters is that that choice remains.
Latimer said the results of the surveys, which would establish how many opinions had been changed during the course of Saturday’s event, would likely not be compiled until sometime this summer. Hempson and Latimer will be presenting preliminary results and discussing the process at a conference of deliberative polling organizers from other universities in Utah in June.
There could also be two papers published, one discussing how to conduct deliberative polling in college and high school classrooms, and the other breaking down the results in a sociology journal.
After speaking informally with the moderators of the small group discussions, Latimer said that some folks hadn’t considered certain issues before hearing them from their peers.
“It seems like maybe some of the people had an altered opinion over the course of the day,” Latimer said this morning.