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Illustration by Brian Gable (Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail)
Illustration by Brian Gable (Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail)

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Pollsters lash out at 'methodological snake oil' in Ontario election Add to ...

Two national pollsters are taking the media and their own profession to task, arguing their peers have become “hucksters selling methodological snake oil” and that reporters are promiscuous in their reporting of polls.

“There used to be some consistency, standards and scrutiny,” Darrell Bricker, CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs, told The Globe. “Now, news outlets are the easiest lay at the party. ... It’s embarrassing.”

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Mr. Bricker’s crude characterization of media organizations underscores his concern with the reporting of polls – especially during this Ontario election campaign.

He and his colleague, Ipsos senior vice-president John Wright, wrote an open letter Wednesday night after two recent polls showed dramatically different results.

It’s quite an indictment.

An online survey by Abacus Data published by Sun Media on Tuesday gave Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives a nine-point lead over Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals.

Last Friday, however, a Harris/Decima poll reported by The Globe and Mail had the Ontario Liberals with an 11-point leader over their Tory rivals. (The Globe uses Nanos Research for its own polling.)

“WTF???” Mr. Bricker said.

Mr. Wright added: “This is disgusting and the media should give their heads a shake. Why should we be doing your work? Don’t others care?”

The Ipsos pollsters conduct their media polling for Postmedia News/Global Television.

“We’ve all seen over the last few days a confusing cacophony of polls on the Ontario election,” two pair write in their missive. “Depending on what poll you read, McGuinty’s Liberals are on a roll, Hudak and the Tories are comfortably ahead, or the Grits and Tories are neck and neck. How can this be?”

They argue it’s because “all polls are NOT created equally.” They add, too, that pollsters are never held to account “for their indiscretions, incompetence and mistakes (there is no ‘polling police’).”

An angry Mr. Wright told The Globe: “Want to know who can be a pollster nowadays? Anyone with $1K to buy a question on someone else’s omni [omnibus poll]and put it out because the media will print what they get. So, now any printer or outlet is the pollster.”

But never mind the slick pollsters, the pair argue the press is not without blame. They suggest news organizations know exactly what they are doing in reporting polls, citing “a disturbing trend of late in which questionable polls find their way into an outlet’s coverage because they appear to match an editorial line, or present a counter-intuitive perspective.”

“All of this MUST stop,” they charge. “We are distorting our democracy, confusing voters, and destroying what should be a source of truth in election campaigns.”

So Mr. Bricker and Mr. Wright provide six rules for media to live by when considering publishing polls.

1. They warn against the accuracy of IVR polls or robo-calling polls. “They are tremendously biased in terms of sample coverage,” they say.

2. Beware of pollsters “using on-line methodologies” to predict vote intention. “You will find that some heavy thumbs are being applied to adjust for under-represented voting groups,” they argue.

3. Be honest with yourself. When a poll looks rogue do not publish it.

4. They want a moratorium on all “new” polling techniques until they are properly tested – once again they take aim at robo-calling polls.

5. Be careful how you report the poll question – they are not all the same.

6. Get to know your pollster. “They are NOT all created equal. ... Is this a one person show that subcontracts all of their data collection, and only shows up at election time? ... What are their motives? Are they just publicity hounds trying to promote their business, or are they serious researchers?”

They conclude: “Kick the tires before publishing a poll, and make it harder for bad or misleading polls to get published. That’s the way it’s done in jurisdictions that take polling seriously. It’s sad that this isn’t the case in Ontario today.”

The spy who loved Bob Dechert

Newspapers are editorializing about the Bob Dechert affair, warning about potential dire consequences of a friendship between a government MP and a journalist for China’s state-owned Chinese news outlet.

Mr. Dechert, of course, is the 53-year-old parliamentary secretary to the Foreign Affairs Minister who is involved in an embarrassing romantic e-mail exchange Shi Rong, a correspondent with Xinhua News Agency more than a decade his junior.

The Globe says Mr. Dechert must clarify his exchanges with Ms. Shi, warning that some of the foreign correspondents with Xinhua “write ‘internal reference reports’ for party and government officials.”

The Calgary Herald, meanwhile, says politicians should know better – but they don’t seem to learn. “No matter how many politicians get embarrassingly outed for some indiscretion or other via dissemination of their e-mails, other politicians just keep hitting the send button.”

Then there’s this from the Vancouver Sun. It says Mr. Dechert made a “risky error in judgment that erodes confidence in his ability to do his job.”

It notes, too, that the government’s behaviour in downplaying the situation “is worrisome, especially given recent warnings from CSIS about possible foreign interference from countries out to influence policy and politicians.”

And QMI’s Jim Hendry says Mr. Dechert should be fired: “Whether Dechert actually leaked any information should be investigated, but there is no need to wait for the outcome to pull him out of foreign affairs.”

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