Sympathy: A difficult word

Posted on 23/11/2015


People have rushed to condemn the Sun for today’s headline that British Muslims feel sympathy for ISIS.Sun front page 231115

The problem is how you interpret the word “sympathy.”

Headline writers know the word “sympathy” will be interpreted by many as implying support. But the people answering the survey won’t have assumed that.

If you read the Survation question wording, it says:

Which of the following are closest to your view?

  • I have a lot of sympathy with young Muslims who leave the UK to join fighters in Syria
  • I have some sympathy with young Muslims who leave the UK to join fighters in Syria
  • I have no sympathy with young Muslims who leave the UK to join fighters in Syria

In this context sympathy could mean many things. And by the true letter of the research, the full Sun article reports the findings accurately.

Of course, The Sun knows what it is doing. Editors know how the public will interpret their front page and they know the debate they will fuel. And it’s hard to criticise a tabloid for knowing what it is doing.

However, it is bad research. Survation should be criticised for allowing questions into a poll which could so clearly be taken out of context. It would have been far more interesting if they had asked more explicit questions – or substituted the word “support” for “sympathy”.

So as always with research-based headlines, always look at the statistics before passing judgement.

Update: Respectable market research organisations, such as YouGov (The Sun’s usual pollsters) are disassociating their companies from the research questions, bringing even more attention to the role of Survation in how they conduct their research and why they signed off the project in the first place.

Update 2: Survation have responded to the criticisms levelled at them. It turns out they didn’t have any sign off – which should probably be a lesson to their governance team in the future:

Survation do not support or endorse the way in which this poll’s findings have been interpreted. Neither the headline nor the body text of articles published were discussed with or approved by Survation prior to publication. For reference, our own coverage and analysis can be found here.


“sympathy with” (distinct from “support for”) those travelling to fight in Syria (among any group) exists as a limited, minority view among both muslims and non-muslims, particularly among young people of both groups.


Posted in: media, politics, the sun