Polling and Spin – Part I

[See a 25 Oct UPDATE below with some links] There was something familiar about a pro-mining an article in the New Zealand Herald last week, Public Back Mining: Poll, and it wasn’t just that the headline was rather like one that ran on July 9, Mining Poll Result Shows Kiwis Alert to ‘Misinformation’. For one thing, there were a few quotes from the mining lobby group Straterra, whose CEO is Chris Baker:

Oct. 15
Baker said the results revealed most New Zealanders supported responsible exploration and mining for minerals, “contrary to what a vocal and persistent minority would have us believe”. “But the results also show relatively poor public understanding of the reality today of minerals activities in New Zealand,” he said. “The misinformation advanced by parts of the community, however well-intended, does not help informed debate on our economic future.”

July 9
“However, the survey shows that misinformation on minerals and mining promulgated by a vocal and persistent minority is rejected by most New Zealanders, who have confidence in our regulations and who see every reason for mineral exploration,” Baker said.

It seems “vocal and persistent minority” is the focused-group phrase for – whoever – since, according to today’s article, “Baker did not identify any group.” Though the article went on to discuss Forest & Bird.

But more importantly, last week’s article (which originally ran a few days earlier in the Otago Daily Times) gave the reader almost no information about the poll on which it was based. It surely isn’t the same poll as the one reported in July, since that surveyed 750 people, and the one quoted last week apparently surveyed 1000. But who commissioned it? Who carried it out? What were all the questions?  All we are told is that it was “a recent 1000-person national poll”.

I’ve written about the news media’s coverage of polling before. And this is another case of Not Nearly Enough Information.

I emailed the author of the latest article, Simon Hartley of the ODT, to ask, and to give him credit, he wrote back, which I greatly appreciate. (It’s more than the SST did when I asked them about a story they did about a Family First poll back in February.) However, I found Hartley’s reply a bit disturbing. The poll, he said, was commissioned by Straterra and carried out, he thought, in February-March. Hartley suggested the poll info would be on Straterra’s Web site, but I couldn’t find it.

So I wrote to Straterra, who sent me a copy of the poll — well, parts of it anyway — (which I also appreciate). The poll was carried out in February-March by Pauline Colmar, and presented last week at the Straterra Mining Club. But according to Straterra, it was commissioned by Solid Energy, who provided the questions to the Commerce Select Committee in April 2012.

Straterra also told me that the Coal Action Network Aotearoa — which describes itself as: “a group of climate justice campaigners committed to fighting the continuation of coal mining in Aotearoa New Zealand” — had laid a complaint about the poll. Sure enough, CANA has been following this issue for some time, including a media release way back on 20 April, Coal Action Network to Take Complaint Over Solid Energy Market Research, and, this post at the same time: Solid Energy Market Research Under Scrutiny. (According to Straterra, the complaint to the Marketing Research Standards Association wasn’t upheld; I didn’t see reporting on that on CANA’s site, though it may well be there.)

Based on what I saw, (only part of the poll was provided to me), while the survey sample looked good, I’d have to agree with some of CANA’s criticisms (see links above).

The first question asked:
Q1: How concerned or unconcerned are you about New Zealand’s standard of living over the next 5-10 years? 

Remember, this is a poll ostensibly about  “New Zealand Public’s Attitudes to Natural Resources 2012”. This question certainly seems to prime the respondent somewhat to focus on the extent to which mining will or will not alleviate their “concern”. Unsurprisingly, a significant majority — 77 percent — said they were “quite concerned” or “very concerned”.

The next questions asked:
Q2:How important or unimportant do you think the development of New Zealand’s natural resources is in improving New Zealand’s economic prosperity and standards of living? Natural resources include oil, gas, coal,gold and iron sands. 

Again, a big majority — 81 percent — said they thought this development was “quite important” or “very important”.

Both of which led to this in the NZherald/ODT article:

Straterra chief executive Chris Baker said results of a recent 1000-person national poll, showing support and understanding in percentages beyond 70 to 80 per cent, were surprising, given “the perception that there is a lot of opposition in New Zealand to mining, such as [mining] lignite and gold”.

“These results prove otherwise,” he said. “They [the percentages] are high enough to be a game-changer.”

The poll found 81 per cent believed it was “very important or quite important” to develop New Zealand’s natural resources for prosperity, while 77 per cent were “very concerned or quite concerned” about New Zealand’s standard of living.

As I mentioned, a bunch of questions and answers are absent from the info presented at the Mining Club and presumably to the journalist, which obviously throws the whole thrust of that NZ Herald/ODT article into some pretty severe doubt. We’d need to see the whole poll to be able to judge whether or not the “Public Back Mining”.

Journalists are up against it, I know. Time, deadlines, armies of PR spin. But there’s so much more information that could and should have been included in that article. I kind of ran out of steam following this poll down the various rabbit holes. But that’s where lobby groups might actually help. If you’re going to report on info from a lobby group dedicated to one side of an issue, it wouldn’t take too much time to reach out to one dedicated to the other side. It’s not ideal, or really a substitute for hunting this stuff down yourself. But it would be a start.

Meanwhile, the part of the article about the poll ended with this:

While Straterra wanted to put education programmes in place soon, it was about to enlarge its communications team in Wellington and had arranged a briefing for politicians this week, Baker said.

I doubt CANA will be able to afford an education programme or to enlarge its communications team. Which brings me to another issue entirely, worth a few posts of its own, but it’s sad that at the same time as being well-funded and having comms teams enhances your credibility in the news media’s eyes, being a voluntary activist group somehow makes you less so, hence less likely to be asked to comment – precisely when that is needed most.

(This post is headlined Part I because I just know this stuff is going to come up again and again and again.)

UPDATE: 25 October 2012. I had missed this 23 October op-ed by Claire Browning of Forest & Bird in the ODT titled “Selected poll-data mining hides priority 1: environment” and this excellent piece on 19 October by Beau Murrah titled (snap!) “Polls, Spin and Straterra“. According to Murrah, the MED took the poll off its site after he wrote them an email pointing to some good critiques of the poll. Murrah got a look at the full poll, but it’s gone now. Not that I really want to wade back into that one. Besides, his and Browning’s critiques pretty much take of that that poll.

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