MEDIA WATCH

Gut instinct versus news

To question how well equipped Canadians are to make useful judgments is not necessarily to argue that polls are nonsense

GEORGE BAIN April 22 1991
MEDIA WATCH

Gut instinct versus news

To question how well equipped Canadians are to make useful judgments is not necessarily to argue that polls are nonsense

GEORGE BAIN April 22 1991

Gut instinct versus news

To question how well equipped Canadians are to make useful judgments is not necessarily to argue that polls are nonsense

MEDIA WATCH

GEORGE BAIN

Probably it’s not something someone writing a column on the media should admit, but I’ve just been driven to the dictionary to check my understanding of “news.” I have come away only mildly reassured to find news defined as “information” and as “the presentation of a report on current events in a newspaper or other periodical or on radio or television.” What that last seems to mean is that if you read it in a newspaper or in a magazine, or hear it on radio, or see it on television, that’s what it is—news. What that in turn must mean is that news is what those of us who write it and speak it say it is. That should satisfy everyone, skipping the rare fanatic who is never content to leave well enough alone and who will insist now on knowing what “it” means in all of the above. Clearly, not all information is news.

What sent me to the dictionary was a Canadian Press story about a Decima Research Ltd. survey done for the federal department of finance last September, which the news agency obtained via an Access to Information request. I saw the story first in the Halifax ChronicleHerald, then the Toronto Globe and Mail, and later found out, by phoning to ask, that, no, the Montreal Gazette had not carried it; yes, The Ottawa Citizen had; no, The Toronto Star had not; yes, the Winnipeg Free Press had; yes, the Regina Leader Post had; yes, the Edmonton Journalhad; and, yes, The Vancouver Sun had. Seven out of nine major city newspapers spread fairly well across the country certainly ought to constitute “presentation of a report,” although it might be argued that the report, seven months late, was neither current nor, strictly speaking, about an event.

But then, I have always been a little wishywashy about polls, and especially polls that offer people choices and ask them to express themselves on large subjects by picking the ones that give them a warm feeling in the pit of the stomach. “Thought” may or may not have been the poll’s word for it, but it was the one used by CP’s reporter, Kirk LaPointe, whose

opening was that “nearly three-quarters of Canadians last fall thought the federal government was mishandling the economy.” Thought, past tense of think, to analyse with the intellect; whether thought is what the poll got from its respondents is questionable. Perhaps what they expressed might be better described as gut instinct or, more elegantly, a perception, an “awareness derived from sensory processes” given a stimulus—the stimulus being the pollster with the pen poised over a multi-choice questionnaire.

To question how well equipped 1,200 of any sort of Canadians are to make useful judgments on so esoteric a subject as the national economy and the influences upon it is not necessarily to argue that polls are nonsense, or that having the gut instincts of people to mull over may not be of some marginal use to our governors, or even that the conclusion about mismanagement of the economy was wrong—although anyone might prefer to have seen the rationale for their saying so. But it makes a cautionary exercise to look at one paragraph from that story and to think what you yourself would have said, extemporaneously, unprompted by anything, if faced with a bald demand: “Please state succinctly and in order the major causes of this recession.”

“The major causes of the recession,” the CP account of the Decima survey said, leaving an impression on the reader of assured respondents briskly relating the results of profound thought, “were considered to be high interest rates, bad federal economic management, the federal deficit and Ottawa’s attempts to cut that deficit through reduced spending and increased taxation.” Impressive—at least to a point. The effect was somewhat diminished by the fact that reduced spending and/or increased taxation are two of not very many prescriptions for deflating a deficit, and one might have thought respondents would have been advised, in brackets opposite the available options, “Choose one.”

But is this sort of thing, of whatever use it may be to governments, news? Or have the media simply become poll-obsessed? Something else that was demanded of this gallant 1,200 was that they rate, on a scale of one to 10, the degree of their concern about certain matters. Top of the heap, with a rating of 8.59—not 8.6, not a plebeian 8.5, but 8.59— was “government waste,” a possibly instructive finding if only one knew whether the respondents had in mind cheap haircuts for members of Parliament and senators in the Parliament Hill barbershops, or agricultural and industrial subsidies, or what. It is even possible that they had nothing in mind, except that “government waste” sounded like a good thing to be concerned about. It would be hard to say.

The same poll, according to the CP story, also produced the astounding detail—it should have been particularly astounding to the media— that 13 per cent of respondents had never heard of the endlessly written-about and debated GST just four months before it came into effect last New Year’s Day. Thirteen per cent, translated into national terms, means about three million Canadians.

It’s enough to drive a man to think. What I did instead was to phone a friend in Ottawa to check him on his pollability. The question-andanswer follows:

Q: “What is your name?”

A: “Sam.”

Q: “What’s your full name?”

A: “Samuel Martin Bain.”

Q: “How old are you?”

A: “Four.”

Q: “Now listen carefully. Does government waste come at the top of the list among your concerns these days? Answer ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ ” A: (Long pause, evidently for thought) “Yes.”

It goes without saying that, as Sam is the senior grandson, he is a bright kid, but the question had to be put to him on a yes-no basis as he’s not into decimals yet. But that shouldn’t disqualify him, not if a level of awareness capable of blacking out the much-anguishedover GST doesn’t. And, what the hell, Lord Randolph Churchill, Winston’s father, once complained about decimals, “Oh, I never could make out what those damned dots meant”— and he was Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer at the time. My pollster, from now on, is Sam. But is what he says news?