In previous posts, this site has been very critical of polls conducted on behalf of major news organizations. They offer an easy way out of actual reportage - media outlets just ask some people what they think and publish the results. During an election, polling is inescapable - people want to know what the next government could look like before the vote. These polls document opinion where opinion should be documented (lack of context and other previously noted problems aside). But today's National Post takes polling to a new level. Instead of trying to document opinion, the Post asks Ipsos Reid to ask Torontonians to explain an increase in gun violence. Seventy-six per cent of them think it's because judges are too lenient with sentencing. Well, is it true? Do those who commit offenses with firearms receive unreasonably light offenses? What's the length of the average sentence for a gun crime? When these people are released from prison, what is the re-offend rate? What is the current rate of gun crime in Canada? Why doesn't this story answer any of these questions? More troubling is this quote:
Eighty-nine per cent of Toronto residents polled blamed gangs for the shootings that have made gun crime a top issue in the federal election campaign while 78% cited drugs and drug trafficking. In contrast, far fewer respondents pointed to social issues as the cause of increased violence. Less than half said poverty was a major cause of gun crime, while 31% blamed a lack of affordable housing, 45% cited inadequate funding for recreation programs and 49% listed youth unemployment.Well? What percentage of gun crimes in Toronto were gang-related? What percentage involved drugs and drug trafficking? Is there someone out there - I don't know, a criminal sociologist of some kind - who could speak to the second half of the above quote? This story is troubling because it proports to explain gun violence in Toronto through the opinions of people obviously still shaken from the Boxing Day shooting that took the life of 15-year-old Jane Creba. Perhaps the Post could have actually reported on this issue instead of outsourcing their job to Ispos Reid. More About Polling This story shows how detrimental polling can be to journalism. It is certainly the media outlets who are to blame, not the polling companies. A former employee of a prominent polling company spoke to a journalism class at Carleton University last year (I will not name the employee, polling company or class because the event was an informal conversation) told students that he found the media's obsession with polls to be amazing. His company, he said, once released a poll that discovered that a majority of Canadians believed Elvis was still alive. A major newspaper, the identity of which would reveal the source, published the story on the front page. The former employee laughed about how easy it was to get his polling company's name on the front page of the newspaper. In my communications position, I also receive solicitations from polling companies. The latest was a survey a polling company would conduct on co-educational schools compared to single-sex schools. The promotional materials (which included a poll the school had to submit to its constituents) promised the results to be released in the spring, combined with a public relations campaign (implemented by a partner PR firm associated with the polling company) to guarantee media coverage during the admissions season of independent and private schools across the country. Pay attention to news stories in March. You will see stories that suggest, based on a poll conducted by a major polling firm, that co-educational schools out-perform single-sex schools. And my bosses will rejoice.