Wednesday, April 25, 2012
Civil Beat Credibility Is ‘On the Ropes’ by Relying On Public Opinion Polls with Flaws Big Enough To Drive an Entire Honolulu Rail Project Through
Sorry for the dangling preposition, but grammar is the least of our concerns after reading the first two sentences in Civil Beat’s report on HART CEO Dan Grabauskas’s visit to CB’s offices:
“Honolulu’s rail project is on the ropes. Public opinion polls show people have turned against the project.”
We’ve repeatedly criticized the two polls Civil Beat uses to reach that conclusion – its own survey and one conducted by the Star-Advertiser and Hawaii News Now. You can find those detailed critiques by clicking on our “aggregation site” and scrolling down to the Public Opinion section.
To summarize, Civil Beat surveyed only registered voters on rail, which in light of Hawaii’s extremely poor voter turnout (40.5 percent in 2010’s primary election) means that the views of more than half the population were ignored – the non-voting majority that is statistically more likely to rely on public transit than voters with higher income and education levels.
That was a huge mistake. Governments do not plan their infrastructure improvements based on who votes and who doesn't, yet that's the premise of Civil Beat's survey – a 21st century version of a rail "poll tax."
At least one local opinion survey professional agrees that non-voters should have been included to know what all potential users think about rail. But Civil Beat refuses to acknowledge its flawed methodology and even defends it, thereby underscoring the validity of Point #6 in our media training handout: The media are quick to judge and slow to change. Civil Beat is not the exception that proves the rule.
The SA/HNN survey began one week after anti-rail mayoral candidate Ben Cayetano announced his candidacy. The polling continued over the next 10 days during a period when rail was accorded “bad press,” to put it mildly. Even sponsor Hawaii News Now aired a news story that said the poll's timing "could have skewed results against the project."
Mr. Cayetano has since faded from public view, and so have his public comments about transportation. In the 14 weeks since he announced his candidacy he has resolutely refused to disclose any details about the Jeremy Harris bus rapid transit plan (circa 2000) he says he’ll dust off to replace rail.
Come and Gone
And here’s where we get to another problem in today’s Civil Beat story on Mr. Grabauskas. Near the end, the Civil Beat's editorial board writes, “…to be fair other proposals for bus rapid transit and more commuter lanes have been put on the table.”
Really? What proposals, what lanes and what table? We’ve seen no detailed BRT plan by the anti-rail mayoral candidate. Does Civil Beat have access to those plans? Mr. Cayetano sent an email to Civil Beat’s former editor saying he’d put those plans out for public review by mid-April. Mid-April has come and gone, and Mr. Cayetano has failed to deliver.
What does Civil Beat make of that? Nothing, apparently, since we see no evidence the online news source is pressing the candidate for details on a plan to replace mobility-enhancing, travel-time-reducing, development-guiding, transportation-equity-ensuring and job-creating Honolulu rail.
The headline on today’s story on Mr. Grabauskas visit also raises eyebrows about Civil Beat’s approach to the whole rail issue: New Honolulu Rail Chief Talks a Good game. When someone is described in those terms, what usually follows is unflattering.
Is Civil Beat living up to its “watchdog” role on both sides of the rail issue? It’s well past time for Civil Beat and other news media to push past Mr. Cayetano’s BRT rhetoric and make the same "talking game" assessment about the man who vows to kill Honolulu rail if he’s elected.
Credibility has become an issue in this campaign – not only among the candidates but among those who presumably are pledged to cover rail aggressively with objectivity and impartiality. It would be unfortunate if Civil Beat has lost more than its editor to The Washington Post.