Wednesday, April 11, 2012

We’ll Believe a Media-Sponsored Public Opinion Rail Survey When They Do One that’s Believable

It’s not uncommon for news reporters, once they leave journalism, to train business executives and managers on how to give effective news interviews. An aid we used with clients was a 10-point “Journalism in the 21st Century” handout. Points 6 through 8 were as follows:

6. The media are quick to judge and slow to change. Do not let the media cast you as the “bad guy.”
7. Many in the media believe the “infallibility” myth. Some reporters are exceptionally thin-skinned and resent having their mistakes identified.
8. The media can be manipulated. If your “adversary” does the manipulating, you’re at a tremendous disadvantage.

We’re seeing evidence of these (and the other seven) points in media coverage of the Honolulu rail project – especially on the public opinion surveys that have been completed on the project this year.

We’ve commented as recently as yesterday on what we think are obvious problems with the Star-Advertiser/Hawaii News Now January poll and Civil Beat’s more recent telephone survey.

The S-A/HNN poll was conducted immediately after Ben Cayetano announced his candidacy in this year’s mayoral election during the 10-day period when the news media were filled with his anti-rail campaign rhetoric. Civil Beat chose not to survey non-voters, the half of the population that’s more dependent on and more likely to ride public transit. Both these issues were to us, at least, significant problems at the very heart of those surveys.

Point #6 in our list is obvious in how the Honolulu media continue to play the results of those polls: They keep repeating the alleged slippage in public support for rail.

Two days ago, Civil Beat wrote “…two Hawaii polls showed the public opinion has turned against the controversial Honolulu rail project….Star-Advertiser columnist David Shapiro continues his opposition to rail as we predicted he would all year back in January. He ends his column today by noting “public opinion polls show support for rail shrinking and former Gov. Ben Cayetano gaining steam in his mayoral campaign to kill the controversial project.” (“Controversial’ seemingly must be included in each rail story.)

The snapshot in time Mr. Shapiro references on both rail’s and Mr. Cayetano’s popularity obviously was influenced by the survey’s timing, which even sponsor Hawaii News Now says “could have skewed results against the project.”

Repetition’s the Thing
These polls’ results are repeated as often as possible by anti-rail, rail opposition leader Cliff Slater’s site, bloggers, news aggregators and other locations without questioning their validity. We’ll have to wait for results of other scientific opinion surveys without the obvious timing and content flaws to see if they’ve found the same level of support rail previously enjoyed in three scientific surveys with no obvious weaknesses.

But even if a new poll commissioned by the rail project had results similar to the earlier ones, we already know how the media would play it. That poll would be derisively dismissed for two reasons – because the project sponsored it (implying apparently that the project can’t be trusted to be honest) and because it would differ from the other results that already are part of nearly every media story on rail.

Everything we see in rail’s coverage leads us to believe points 6, 7 and 8 in our observations about journalism in the 21st century are as valid this year as they ever were. For the record, here’s point #1 in our list:

If the media can get some of your story wrong, they probably will. That's not a knock on reporters. It’s hard to get all the facts straight, and that's why it’s important to help reporters get it right.

We're still waiting for the media to get it right on rail's continuing support in this community.

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