Remember when polls actually meant something?

Bob
Bob Wakeham
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With all this yak of late about the sleazy way politicians (imagine, politicians and sleaze mentioned in the same breath) try to manipulate open-line shows and - more significantly - what is liberally described as polling, I was reminded of another time, another era, when the rules, at least the CBC rules, on the taking of polls were deliberately restrictive and tough.

Specifically, I recall having to move heaven and Earth to get permission from the CBC brass to allow the local current affairs program, "On Camera," to carry out a poll on denominational education.

As the producer of "On Camera," I and the show's host, Bill Gillespie, were eager to find out just how Newfoundlanders felt about education remaining in the control of the province's religions, and to determine what percentage of people here might opt for a public school system.

It was, to immensely understate the matter, a touchy issue back then in the late '80s, and always had been, with most politicians too frightened to death of the influence of the men (and a few women) of the cloth and their followers (a sizeable chunk of voters, after all) to even broach the subject of doing away with denominational education.

But we were neither politicians, the self-serving crowd forever influenced by the way the electioneering winds were blowing, nor were we religious leaders, those determined to use public money to keep Christ in the classroom, and we felt it was time to at least gauge, by means of a scientific poll, public opinion on the matter.

Anyway, it's not my intent here to rehash that debate, but to put in some perspective how loosey-goosey the journalistic rules surrounding "polling" have become over time.

Proper protocol

First of all, I was ordered, without a qualifier of any sort, to guarantee that the method of polling would be one of complete integrity, that whatever the results, the CBC would be able to inform the public that every precaution had been taken to ensure the poll had the same parameters of accuracy as did any professional poll.

So we hired an expert in the field, and followed all the rules that pollsters normally follow in their work.

And this wasn't a one-day or one-week or even a one-month project; it was literally months from conception to completion.

At the time, I recall being pissed off that the CBC would put me and the show through the ringer in order to carry out the poll, but my attitude had more to do with stubbornness and the arrogant belief that I needed little or no guidance in my pursuit of information.

In retrospect, I'm glad we were forced to adhere to the strictest of rules for polling. It gave the poll credibility. It gave us credibility. It gave the eventual story credibility.

On the bandwagon

Nowadays, the CBC has joined the ranks of the private radio stations, VOCM in particular, in providing opportunities for politicians, and any special interest group for that matter, to manipulate the responses the corporation producers receive to their regular poll questions. At least that's one conclusion you can draw from The Telegram's recent stories on how the boys and girls of the legislature try to deliberately influence these decidedly unscientific measurements of public opinion.

In the not so distant past, as I've implied, polling was used in a most judicious manner by newsrooms, at least the newsrooms where I was employed at the CBC.

'Streeters' aren't polls, either

Yes, we conducted fairly regular "streeters," where we'd bring a microphone to public gathering places and randomly ask people how they felt about the issues of the day. But it was obvious to any listener or viewer that this was just a crude and superficial way of adding a few public comments, a bit of colour, to a story - period. And the accompanying script would be worded (ideally) in such a way as to punctuate the fact that these streeters were not to be interpreted as polls of any sort.

But I'm not convinced that the average news consumer out there is aware that he or she should accord these ubiquitous polls of recent times on the CBC a similar level of scientific credence they would give to "The Seven Days of Creation." And I believe many of them listen to the results, hear the percentages and the vernacular one normally associates with polls, and assume they are an accurate assessment of public opinion.

In a different era, perhaps an era that only old journalistic farts want to resurrect, there would be no such grey area in the use of polling. For the most part, we left polling to the experts. We merely reported the results. And if we did it ourselves, it was conducted in the way in which that "On Camera" poll was carried out.

Besides, politicians had virtual carte blanche to do their skewering of opinion on the private networks, both with calls to the open-line shows and the "questions of the day," and that approach obviously continues.

Now, as I've said, the CBC is in the game.

And the political questions they pose, the questions on so-called current affairs, draw politicians and their flaks like house flies to cow dung.

And if you have no problem with that, well then, ladies and gentlemen, let the games - I mean the polling - begin.

That poll on denominational education, by the way, showed that a healthy majority of Newfoundlanders were in favour of throwing out the system. And within a decade or so, that's exactly what happened.

It was a poll well worth taking, as it turned out, and certainly worth taking in a proper way - with its integrity, its ethics and those of its commissioners, kept in a reasonably healthy state.

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com.

Organizations: CBC

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador

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Recent comments

  • david
    February 27, 2013 - 11:48

    Forget polls...remember when public finances meant something? Accounting? The governemnt just told us that Newfoundland tourism is now a "$1 billion dollar industry"....and you're all amped up about some stupid lies about polls?! Really?

  • Mr. Mount Pearl
    February 23, 2013 - 17:32

    Dave Denine, Harvey Hodder, Julie Bettney.........all great politicians who represented the City of Mount Pearl with class and dignity........and now we have Paul Lane and Steve Kent. If there is one positive thing I can say about these two it's that the people who get elected in their place in 2015 won't have very big shoes to fill. As for these "MHAs" influencing on-line polls.....If this government was doing the job they were elected to do and were working on behalf of the people of the province and not for themselves and their friends, there would be no need to alter the outcome of the polls or to amend legislation that allows them to cover up what they are doing.

  • david
    February 23, 2013 - 09:56

    I disagree emphatically with htis article. Polling in Newfoundland has never been so informative and insightful as it is as of this very moment. In that this exposed polling skullduggery represents and illustrates the true, current morally bankrupt state of our pathetic politics, it has never been more potentially useful. And should we ignore the message, as we most assuredly will, we will continue hurtling towards the ruination-by-apathy that we deserve.

  • grow up
    February 23, 2013 - 09:35

    Real polls still do mean something. It's the perversion of polls by online media and it's abuse by voters that's the problem. If there was a professional association of mathematicians or statisticians to control the use of the word "poll" then maybe this wouldn't happen. The public became familiar with the word "poll" when real polls were reported on the news. Now the media has abused polls and twisted it into something untrustworthy. If the media was truly concerned about polls they wouldn't have provided an arena for it's abuse. But these false polls do reveal something about how weak our grasp is of democracy. That if we can find a way to get around the democratic election process then we'll do it.

  • Corporate Psycho
    February 23, 2013 - 09:31

    Paul Lane and friends have brought sleaze to a new level.