Media Must Lose Poll Obsession

By Mike Archer. There is little those of us in the media enjoy more than playing the ‘I know something you don’t know’ game.

Just like the phrase ‘I’ve got an inside tip’ drives the gamblers of the world’s stock markets, the phrase ‘Guess what I just heard’ drives the egos and the work days of the news media.

It’s what we sell (or in the case Journalism 2.0 … what we simply provide for free).

Either way – it is turning out to be meaningless tripe.

The media’s obsession with polls fits with its ego-driven, fast-paced, get it before the other guy, cheap formula for delivering the latest available information.

A couple of things have happened since polls had meaning.

1) The advent of the cell phone – the dirty little secret of the polling business is that they don’t have access to cell phone numbers so, as the number of cell phones proliferates and the number of people continuing to pay for landlines shrinks their audience is becoming skewed and their information less accurate or meaningful.

2) Polls have become part of the election narrative which they say they are measuring. Rather than telling us how people will vote, they tell us how a certain number of people said they would vote when they were asked yesterday.

By publishing this information as though it signifies anything (none of us in the media ever explain what people are supposed to learn from the information) we insert it into the narrative and thereby change the narrative.

For example: by saying the NDP was more than 20 points ahead of the Liberals in the polls the media made the whole election about whether or not Christy Clark could do the unthinkable and stage a comeback.

The fact that six weeks ago enough people hated the Liberals to make them say they wouldn’t vote for them is an interesting but fundamentally meaningless piece of information since it leaves out some crucial facts:

  • The election wasn’t six weeks ago
  • The election campaign had not begun – so nobody had taken an opportunity to examine the platforms, the campaigns and make a reasoned decision
  • Nobody had yet been influenced by the political parties who were waiting for the polls to tell them what their message should be

The polls have now become the story rather than the election. And the polls have an unbroken record of getting it wrong in every recent election.

They polls got it wrong in …

  • The 2008 US economic collapse (polls showed people were optimistic and the stock markets were rising)
  • The last US federal election
  • The Alberta provincial election
  • The Quebec provincial election
  • The Ontario provincial election
  • The BC provincial election

Maybe it is time we in the media got back to doing our jobs and stopped relying on statistical wizards who haven’t even been able to predict their own slide into irrelevance.

In their defence, the good pollsters will tell you that the information they are providing is simply what they are being asked to provide. It is we media genii who are interpreting the information who ought to be held to account.

CTV Newsreader Dan Matheson

CTV Newsreader Dan Matheson

As an illustration of just how dumb the media narrative has become in this country – I have always wondered why the radio and TV morning news shows insist on telling what the stock market numbers are ‘doing’.

Besides knowing what a bunch of rich gamblers are doing with their money this morning I have no idea what I’m supposed to do with the information. I’ve always suspected that those delivering the information had no clue why they were sharing it with me either.

Last Friday morning, while getting ready for work, I watched and listened as Dan Matheson, the overpaid airhead who reads what he’s told to on the CTV morning news tell the business columnist he was happy the stock market numbers were up.

She responded by saying something like the fact that things were a little more complicated than that and that viewers should get an awful lot better informed before making any major decisions.

Matheson responded in his characteristic 5-year-old child manner, laughed and said, “I just feel better when they’re going up and not so good when they’re going down … hahahahaha”

When you combine the intellectual vacuum inside the heads of our news readers and the fallacy of reporting incorrect, meaningless poll numbers during an election, you have a recipe for complete misunderstanding and manipulation.

And we shouldn’t kid ourselves that the smart political operatives know it.

Begging the Question

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