Disappearing the news
An Angus Reid poll reported by The Globe and Mail and CTV News a few days ago asked respondents about the issues important to them. Topping the list were: providing good sanitation services, ensuring public safety, enhancing the overall quality of life, protecting the environment, dealing with homelessness and poverty, and implementing policies to help small businesses.
All of these scored higher than handling the Occupy Vancouver protests. Yet none received a fraction of the coverage the corporate news media devoted to the protest. News viewers and readers could be forgiven for thinking that Occupy Vancouver was the most important issue for them to consider in deciding how to vote.
Media workers will deny they help shape the news. A week before the election, questions were raised about the propriety of the Vancouver Sun’s use of an internal Non-Partisan Association poll that showed NPA mayoral candidate Suzanne Anton narrowing the gap with Vision Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson. The Sun splashed this story on its front page. (Nov. 11)
In defending his paper’s action, reporter Jeff Lee called the suspicion that the Sun was supporting the NPA “hogwash,” and the people who promote this suspicion as “mischief-makers” who believe in “conspiracy theories about ‘mainstream media.’”
A good illustration of how the media is shaping the election was the Sun’s reporting on public opinion polls. The paper seemed to follow a simple formula: the more favourable a poll was for Anton and the NPA and the more critical of Robertson, the more prominent the coverage.
In fact, one poll favourable to Robertson seems to have missed the Sun’s attention almost entirely. An October 21 poll by Justason Market Intelligence found that support for Robertson was more than double that for Anton, at 68 percent to 32 percent.
This poll was reported by Allen Garr in the Vancouver Courier and Frances Bula in The Globe and Mail, but was virtually missed by B.C.’s newspaper of record.
To be fair, the Sun didn’t entirely neglect this poll. It was mentioned in a page-six story two weeks later. It was also relegated to a secondary mention in a page-four story about a different poll that was unfavourable to Robertson. This story was headlined “Mayor Robertson vulnerable in next month’s election.” (Justason’s news release was titled “Robertson polls ahead of rival, Anton.”)
The other poll that sparked this story was undertaken by Forum Research, a global research firm, and it surveyed residents in cities across Canada, asking them if they approve or disapprove of their mayor’s performance. Robertson received 49 percent approval and 51 percent disapproval by Vancouver respondents.
Surrey mayor Dianne Watts had done much better than Robertson in this survey, receiving an approval rating of 68 percent from Surrey residents. The front-page promo for this story included pictures of the two mayors with these words: “Voters like Watts ... Robertson not so much.”
Was Robertson running against Watts?
Another problem poll was a front-page story on November 4 reporting on an Ipsos Reid survey of Metro Vancouver residents regarding the OV tent city. The story reported that a strong majority of Metro residents—75 percent—said they want the tent city gone, with 35 percent saying immediately and 40 percent saying protesters should be allowed to stay, but be given a firm deadline for removal.
But it wasn’t until paragraph 20 that reporter Doug Ward mentioned a caution offered by Ipsos Reid vice-president Kyle Braid. Respondents were located all across Metro Vancouver and not just in the city of Vancouver, Braid said, which is the only location where people will be casting ballots for or against Robertson.
The poll also found that a majority of Metro residents—51 percent—agreed with the views of the protesters, with 38 percent opposed, but this was barely mentioned in the story.
The most controversial polling coverage was the front-page story on Remembrance Day headlined “Anton closes gap on Robertson.” This story by Jeff Lee claimed “the race for the mayor’s office in Vancouver has tightened up, with challenger Suzanne Anton closing the gap to a handful of percentage points of Mayor Gregor Robertson.”
The poll was controversial because it was an internal poll done for the NPA and released to the Sun.
The poll was also controversial because it didn’t start by asking the respondent who he or she was thinking of supporting in the election. Instead it started with a question that primed the respondent to think about the election in a certain way: “Do you think things in the city of Vancouver are moving in the right direction or are they pretty seriously off on the wrong track?”
What is the validity of such as poll? As Frances Bula commented on CTV News at Six, it was “an internal poll by a political party that’s involved in the race so you always have to treat something like that with a little bit of caution.”
On his blog, reporter Jeff Lee undertook herculean efforts to prove he treated the poll cautiously. He listed the standards he sets for whether he will use an internal poll for a story. And he informed readers he had asked Vision Vancouver for its polling data.
This is fine, but what neither Lee nor any reporter can see is the rest of the polling the party may be doing and where the released data fits within a larger picture.
As Bula pointed out, the polling was done between November 3 and 5. “Those were the three days with the most negative news about Occupy Vancouver,” the non-fatal drug overdose on November 3 and the overdose death on November 5. “That had to have affected people’s responses about OV and about the mayoral candidates,” Bula wrote.
As if to prove this point, an Angus Reid poll was released three days later based on polling done November 9 and 10. This poll, reported by CTV News and The Globe and Mail, suggested a dramatically different outcome, with 47 percent of respondents preferring a Robertson-led council and 27 percent an Anton-led council.
Lost in the media stampede to condemn the occupation and Robertson’s handling of it were many other important stories, such Vision Vancouver’s food security initiatives and the Occupy movement’s income inequality message.
The only mention of food security and the city’s food strategy, aside from Peter Ladner’s earlier scolding of his former NPA colleagues, was a thoughtful piece by the Sun’s Randy Shore that was buried in the paper’s Arts and Life section (Nov. 12).
Occupy Vancouver’s message of income inequality was ignored by the Sun, with one important exception. Over the three months of the campaign, Pete McMartin wrote four columns critiquing the growing concentration of wealth at the top end of the income pyramid. Other journalists who tied income inequality to the Occupy movement included Frances Bula and Robert Matas (Globe and Mail), Andrew Fleming (Vancouver Courier) and Ethan Baron (The Province).
By the end of October the story had disappeared.