Monday, July 30, 2012

What Are They Thinking? Another Media Poll on Rail Ignores Citizens Who Say They Aren’t Likely To Vote – i.e., the Ones More Likely To Depend on Transit

Shake your head, throw down the newspaper in disgust, stomp off to write a letter to the editor. They’re all understandable responses among supporters of the Honolulu rail project to the latest journalistic fumbling of the rail issue.

JULY 31 UPDATE: Eagle-eyed readers found a major error in the first paragraph of the Star-Advertiser's story on its new rail poll.  See their Comments below this Yes2Rail post.
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser and Hawaii News Now have completed their latest joint misadventure into the world of political polling. Call it Alice in Wonderland journalism if you like, but whatever you call it, the poll and some of the reporting associated with it show what can happen when well-intentioned people blindly fall into the rabbit hole.

Within a story that reported the results (subscription) showing minority support for rail, here’s the key sentence in today’s story: “The rail question was asked of 509 very likely Oahu voters in the upcoming primary.” 

Consider first that “very likely Oahu voters” are obviously not representative of the whole population – not in a state where the turnout of registered voters in 2008 ranked dead last in the country when only 51.8 percent of all adult citizens voted. And that was with a native son on the presidential ballot!

Then ask yourself who the non-voters are and how they differ from the “very likely Oahu voters.” It shouldn’t take you more than a couple minutes of web searching to conclude that non-voters are indeed much different than those who exercise their right to vote.

National polling organizations need to understand who votes and who doesn’t, because to ignore the differences is to court national embarrassment – or worse. Here’s what the Pew Research Center found in 2006 about Voting and Demographic Factors:

“Not only do the rich seem to get richer, on Election Day…they will probably get a disproportionately large say about who gets elected to Congress. So will older people, whites, college graduates and those who frequently go to church, the survey finds. Among those likely to once again stand on the sidelines…: relatively large numbers of young people, Hispanics, and those with less education and lower incomes….”

Who doesn’t vote regularly? The less money you make, the less likely it is that you vote. The Pew people found differences in the education levels attained, income, marriage status and church attendance and broke them out in the chart at right.

Interesting enough to continue reading? We hope so, because selecting out the “very unlikely Oahu voters” on a question about rail is more than suspect. One could conclude doing so is an irresponsible approach to understanding the level of rail’s support throughout the entire population and what rail will mean to everybody.

An Obligation To Serve
Why does that matter? Because government-funded infrastructure serves all citizens, not just voters or likely voters. Since that’s inarguably the case, why does it make sense for this and other polls, including one conducted for Civil Beat, to exclude non-voters from their surveys?

It makes sense only if you’re interested in finding out which candidate is likely to win an election. Clearly, that’s the big question on Oahu this summer in a primary election that pits two pro-rail candidates against one who vows to kill the project.

But surveying only likely voters is counterproductive in understanding what the entire population thinks about rail, including the segment that’s more likely to be dependent on public transit – the segment that is less educated and makes less money than voters.

How the Star-Advertiser and HNN miss this critical distinction is beyond comprehension, but they have, and if you’ve been paying close attention to the media coverage on rail, you probably know that the media have not helped the public understand rail well during the past several months.

Bizarre Reporting
Reporters who should have been asking the anti-rail candidate for details about his alleged substitute transportation plan to replace rail didn’t do that. Maybe they’re afraid to ask the tough-talking former governor tough questions, but they passed up countless opportunities to do so. It was left to an editorial writer to finally ask “What exactly is Cayetano’s transit plan?” more than four months after his official announcement.

But the media strangeness continues to this very day in this morning’s poll story. Consider this:

(Anti-rail Cliff) Slater said he believes support for rail erodes as people realize that traffic congestion will increase even after the city spends billions of dollars on it. He faulted Honolulu’s major media outlets for failing to make clear to the public that Oahu’s roads inevitably will become more congested as the city grows (emphasis added).”

We added the emphasis to highlight the bizarre nature of this quote. If anything, the media can be faulted for not deconstructing Mr. Slater's #1 talking point to make it absolutely clear that of course Oahu’s roads inevitably will become more congested as the city grows!

The city grows – ergo, more people will be driving more cars on the same highway infrastructure. That’s not hard to understand, yet the media rarely if ever have challenged the Cliff Slater quote machine about his on-its-face-true statement that he uses to criticize the rail project. He goes unquestioned about his intended outcome for more reliance on the private automobile and fewer choices for public transit.

Media Breakdown
Yes2Rail faults Honolulu’s major media outlets for failing to expose Mr. Slater’s attempt to blame rail for failing to reduce congestion as a cynical attempt to confuse the population with misleading anti-rail arguments. Rail’s purpose is not to reduce congestion, which is impossible given Oahu's space restrictions; its purpose is to give citizens a way to avoid congestion.

Mr. Slater’s influence on this and earlier rail projects is indisputable, and his major anti-rail argument has become a key talking point of the anti-rail mayoral candidate, who also incongruously complains congestion will be worse in the future with rail than it is today.

The city’s Wayne Yoshioka had it right when he responded to this non-shocker with, “No kidding….”

And no kidding, media coverage of rail this year has been less than exemplary. Oahu citizens are the unwitting victims of a breakdown in journalistic professionalism – the insistence that only voters’ opinions on rail should matter, the failure to probe for the rail-killing candidate’s transportation plan and the uncritical coverage of the man who is more responsible than anyone else for delaying the construction of transportation alternatives on Oahu.

Borrowing from President Lincoln’s famous phrase, how this serves the best interests of all the people on Oahu is hard to understand.

For more information on mainland polling companies' views of the non-voter issue, see an essay by the Gallup organization. Also noteworthy is the emphasis The Political Dictionary places on likely voters as being “more valuable for election-related purposes than all registered voters or all adults (emphasis added).” Your own Internet searches undoubtedly will prove fruitful in understanding the differences between voters and non-voters. Also, be sure to read the comments posted below.


Hannah Miyamoto said...

Your point about disadvantaged minorities and poor people being less likely to vote is well taken. That's another reason that I sued the City Council on their behalf last week.

Roy Kamisato said...

"only 44 percent of Oahu residents believe work on it should continue, according to a new Hawaii Poll."

This is a word for word quote from the first paragraph of the article. This is clearly inaccurate as the poll only included likely voters. I don't believe the writer intentionally meant to mislead the readers but is more a problem of writing style. Let's hope pointing this out will cause the next article a little more accurate.

Roy Kamisato said...

The writer of the article did get back to me and acknowledged an error in reporting the rail results as residents of Oahu instead of likely voters as an oversight. Hopefully this is a first step in having the media not confuse public opinion polls with political polls.

Anonymous said...

The first sentence of this Star-Advertiser article is clearly and indisputably FALSE.

It states that "only 44 percent of Oahu residents" believe work on the rail project should continue.

But that's SIMPLY NOT TRUE. The poll questioned "very likely Oahu voters," not "Oahu residents."

So, setting aside the question of what the Star-Advertiser should have done in terms of polling, it should at the very least report accurately on what it did do.

It's just ridiculous that Honolulu's sole daily newspaper can't get the first sentence of the lead story on its front page straight.

But it's not the first time.

Anonymous said...

Hawaii News Now was even worse. The 10 pm story began by saying that 44 percent of "people" opposed the rail project.

Then it handed the story over to Slater, who gave his standard misleading spiel about traffic getting worse in the future. The report provided no rebuttal whatsoever to that point. It was clear that rail advocates who were interviewed simply weren't asked about it, so it was left unchallenged. If we were hearing Slater's nonsense for the first time, it would be bad enough. But after his spin has been debunked so many times, it's just absurd to have this kind of "reporting," especially just weeks before an election in which rail is the crucial issue.

Honolulu news media are simply appalling.

Doug Carlson said...

Response to Roy: It's a good hope, Roy, and it's a rare reporter who responds to a complaint by acknowledging a mistake.

The other comments to this post are discouraging, though. Some reporters just can't go beyond the superficial by seeking out quotes from the usual suspects. It's what they need to finish the "package." What a shame -- but maybe somebody will continue to bang away at these issues after Yes2Rail's PB contract ends in two weeks.

Anonymous said...

When rail starts it wont solve the traffic congestion overnite, like many things, it will take time for people to learn how to incorporate it into their schedules.
People will have to learn how to plan better, and to use their brains! People have become too lazy and set in their ways!
There are no problems, only solutions.-John Lennon