Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Media Ignore Obvious Flaws in Rail Opinion Poll, Repeat GI-GO Results in Stories; Senator DKI Expects Attitudes To Change with Issues Debate

When the media commission a public opinion poll, they report the results and repeat them over and over again to get the most mileage out of their investment in the survey. That seems reasonable enough except when a survey had problems within it that affect the outcome – the old Garbage In, Garbage Out syndrome.

That’s what’s happening with the Star-Advertiser/Hawaii News Now poll on the Honolulu rail project, which allegedly found public support for rail slipping to 43 percent. The survey had two obvious flaws; it was conducted within two weeks of Ben Cayetano’s official announcement to run for mayor on an anti-rail platform, and its key question was poorly worded.

Here’s how Hawaii News Now began its story yesterday on Senator Daniel K. Inouye’s decision to support a pro-rail candidate in the race: “A recent poll showed 53 percent of people on Oahu want rail stopped and 43 percent want it to force ahead.” The question they responded to was, “Do you think work should proceed on Oahu’s rail transit system?” As we noted last week, that’s not the same as asking for an opinion on whether the system should be built.

Poll’s Weaknesses
This isn’t simply quibbling about words. The media have given considerable coverage to the lawsuit filed by Mr. Cayetano and others to kill rail. Although plaintiffs aren’t seeking an injunction to stop construction, the outcome is far from certain and won’t be known until August at the earliest.

Respondents who in effect answered “don’t proceed” may have really been thinking “don’t proceed until rail has a green light, then build it as fast as you can!” The poll’s two media sponsors simply ignore the wording problem.
They’re equally blind to the timing issue. It’s almost inconceivable they would sample public opinion on rail immediately after Mr. Cayetano launched his anti-rail campaign. All the media gave it extensive coverage, including Honolulu Weekly, which made Mr. Cayetano the subject of a glowing cover story (that's HW's cover photo at right).
Too bad the Gridiron show fundraiser for the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists is being presented only in odd-numbered years nowadays. The unprofessional poll fiasco would be a good skit.

Senator Inouye
Hawaii’s senior senator (photo by S-A staffer Jamm Aquino), who has served in Congress since Statehood was achieved in 1959, held a Presidents Day press conference yesterday and said he will support a pro-rail candidate for mayor. According to today’s Star-Advertiser (subscription), Senator Inouye said he couldn’t support Mr. Cayetano in the city’s non-partisan race because of his fellow Democrat’s anti-rail stance.

“If asked to say anything, I would be in favor of rail,” he said. “To be honest I suppose I would support a candidate who supports rail. I’m not the type that goes out of his way to cut his own throat.”

Mayor Peter Carlisle, who is seeking reelection, and challenger Kirk Caldwell, the managing director under Mr. Carlisle’s predecessor, both support the rail project.

Mr. Inouye also alluded to the recent opinion survey’s results and timing. The S-A reported the senator said he was surprised the alleged slippage of voter support but that he gives little credence to polls several months ahead of the August election.

“...I feel certain that once the debate begins and reasons are given, it’ll change,” he said. Messrs. Carlisle and Caldwell have yet to begin their campaigns, and media coverage so far in 2012 has tilted heavily toward the anti-rail candidate.

As Senator Inouye noted, that’s bound to change, and so will public opinion – assuming, of course, that the polling company can do a better job of constructing questions that don't give the respondents something to ponder before they answer.

LTE Forum
The newspaper’s letters to the editor column continues to reflect the public’s interest in rail, and while the paper attempts to balance the count of pro- and anti-rail letters without comment, we’re under no such restrictions.

Rail will cut waste for businesses (Star-Advertiser, 2/20)
“The rail transit system will stimulate our economy and provide jobs, but it will also improve productivity for Honolulu businesses and reduce congestion-related costs affecting many local companies. Traffic congestion is costing businesses real money. The time workers spend stuck in traffic is wasting countless work hours and a staggering amount of time paid for work that cannot be done… Delays caused by traffic congestion increase expenses and problems for those sending, receiving and transporting the goods….”
This letter was from the president of the West Oahu Economic Development Association, and before an eager anti-railer posts a comment below about rail “not eliminating congestion,” we’ll note that an 18-percent reduction of vehicle hours of delay in the urban corridor is expected by 2030. Even anti-railer-in-chief Cliff Slater admits traffic would be worse without rail than with it.

Cayetano should change view on rail (Star-Advertiser, 2/20)
“…I cannot emphasize enough the travesty it would be to see this project killed, as our politicians have done in the past. Former Gov. Ben Cayetano brings experience and credibility with him to the mayoral race. Howevr, I sincerely encourage him to reverse hiis opinion on the rail project. We are counting on the rail to keep our island moving.”
Rail system leaves passengers standing (Star-Advertiser, 2/21)
“Wake up, rail supporters: 254 passengers will have to stand all the way to Ala Moana, unless you are one of the 64 lucky passengers to get a seat…. Somehow I doubt that the 40,000 automobile drivers that the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation is expecting to ride the rail are going to leave their cars to stand sardine-style with 3128 other passengers….”
Maybe the Kailua resident who wrote this letter has never ridden rail transit. For a combination of reasons, millions of commuters do it every day all over the world – to save money, for convenience and to improve their lifestyles with the time they save. They may stand for a stop or two, then take a seat when someone else gets off.

That’s the way it works, and that’s how it’ll work here, too, in a city with some of the highest gas prices and car ownership costs in the country. We’ll gladly stand, then sit during our morning and afternoon commute if doing so helps pay for any number of things, including that long airplane trip to Vegas, New York or Paris – sitting down just about all the way.

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