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Inside the newsroom: Optimism can change everything, otherwise, why have BYU play USC?

Deseret News Editor Doug Wilks offers opening remarks during the “Fifth Annual American Family Survey: Myths about families, plus what Americans really think about paid family leave” panel discussion at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019.
Deseret News Editor Doug Wilks offers opening remarks during the “Fifth Annual American Family Survey: Myths about families, plus what Americans really think about paid family leave” panel discussion at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019.
Rod Lamkey Jr.

WASHINGTON — Pessimism versus optimism. That was the theme this week as our writers and editors explored the world of the American Family Survey and came here to Washington to listen to experts debate the merits of it at The American Enterprise Institute.

We see the optimism-pessimism debate play out in the decision to marry or not marry; the decision to have children or take a different path. We see it in career choices — those optimistic about the future are perhaps more willing to take a risk and switch jobs or careers. Those more pessimistic might stay with their current job, fearful of the risks of any economic instability. Deseret News journalist Lois Collins wrote about that Saturday.

We even see the debate in the stands of college football games, including around LaVell Edwards Stadium Saturday as BYU took on national power USC.

No chance for a BYU win, said the pessimists. USC’s wide receivers are too fast and will play in the NFL some day. But there’s a chance for a victory, said the optimists, countering that BYU has had such victories before, right here in this stadium. And that Cougar quarterback and running back are pretty good and will succeed if they’ve been properly prepared!

And so it was this week as we laid out the fifth annual American Family Survey, a partnership between the Deseret News and BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. We have scholars from both the American Enterprise Institute and Brookings Institution, two political think tanks, as well as academics from other institutions in an advisory roll. Their expert analysis and feedback has made the survey more valuable each year.

This year, we measured whether Americans would support paid family leave and asked if they support any of the four (now five) proposals in Congress (they don’t but, thankfully, the majority want something, so there is optimism that a deal can be reached). We assessed the current state of marriage compared to five years ago (still popular, but the trend line shows it waning in some quarters). And we weighed what people believe about certain topics (marriage, children, teen sex) against what the facts are about current trends.

That’s where the optimism-pessimism debate got interesting. Some people assume the worst.

Here’s what we know, as detailed by Christopher Karpowitz, who co-wrote the report on the survey and co-directs the BYU center with Jeremy Pope, a fellow associate professor at BYU:

  • The public tends to believe that marriage is positive and good for society, but over the past five years there is some statistical erosion in those numbers.
  • Despite an expanding economy during the past five years, more Americans are concerned about the economic demands facing families.
  • The public isn’t knowledgeable about important trends in family life and more tend to offer a pessimistic view when offering an opinion on families (except their own, which most believe is good).
  • Divorce is less prevalent now than previously. But only 27% of respondents answered that correctly, while 34% answered incorrectly, meaning they believe divorce is still high.
  • Teen sexual activity is decreasing. But only 25% of respondents got that right, compared to 37% who were incorrect.

Why is this important? Because as Collins wrote in her coverage of Friday’s event at the American Enterprise Institute, it motivates behavior.

As she wrote:

“Misunderstanding the trends in family life has a potential dark side that could misinform decision-making and stall individual effort to craft a better life.”

Deseret News Opinion Editor Boyd Matheson and I discussed this Thursday night as we watched the ABC televised national debate of Democratic presidential candidates. The candidates seem to believe that bad news sells. That’s not surprising. They want your vote because, like Donald Trump before them, they believe they have what it takes to correct whatever is wrong with the country.

Take a look at the Deseret News coverage of the survey. It will enlighten you. Then switch over and watch the highlights of the BYU-USC game. That will inspire you (unless you’re a USC fan). Either team could have won the game. But neither could have won if they didn’t prepare to compete and play the game. In other words, we each need to engage in getting better at being happy.

Perhaps that’s also the message of the American Family Survey. Come armed with correct information, put off assumptions, and be optimistic about a future you become more in control of when you’re knowledgeable of the issues affecting your life (or your family).

Here’s what I said Friday as I introduced the panel discussion.

“We began with a simple but important premise and principle. Namely, that the family is an essential unit of society and vital to its sustainability, growth and success. We wanted to measure and track family life, in all its many forms.”

Our families will have difficult days. But sometimes the difficulty will produce growth and a familial win.

In Provo Saturday, it was BYU 30, USC 27.

A lesson for us all.