The Media Messes Up

October 26, 2010 at 3:54 pm

One of the reasons we’re supposed to believe that cataclysmic global warming threatens our planet is because journalists keep saying so. They’ve said so for years and years. But the fact of the matter is that the media often gets things wrong.

Yesterday, Monday October 25th, was election day here in Toronto. Only two mayoral candidates out of a slate of 40 had a chance of winning. One candidate was favoured by the city’s left-leaning cultural and media establishment. The other – whose campaign slogan was “respect for taxpayers” – was despised by that same crowd. It turns out the despised candidate won handily – with 47% of the total vote (compared to 36% for his rival).

The crucial point is that most of the media insisted loudly, right up until the bitter end, that the contest was too close too call. In fact, it was nothing of the sort.

On Oct. 23rd The Toronto Star told its readers the election was a “close race” and “a dead heat.” On Oct. 21 it said the two main candidates were tied. On Oct. 18th it reported a “tight race.”

The day before the election, The Toronto Star‘s Urban Affairs Bureau Chief told readers that “the most recent reliable polls say [the candidates are] in a dead heat.” The Bureau Chief didn’t indicate what criteria he used to determine which polls were most trustworthy. And that’s a shame. Because, in actual fact, two days earlier the paper acknowledged (in a blog but apparently not in any print edition) the existence of an “unusual poll” which suggested the despised candidate was actually 8 points ahead. (By the time the dust settled, he’d won by 11 points.)

This means that, by the eve of the election, Canada’s largest circulation daily knew about a poll which, in retrospect, predicted reasonably accurately what was about to happen. But one of its own Bureau Chiefs dismissed these numbers. He made a deliberate choice to embrace polling results that we now know were emphatically wrong.

Self delusion is a powerful psychological mechanism. When we lose the ability to distinguish between what we want to happen and what is actually occurring, everything starts to come unstuck. I’m sure it’s a total coincidence that the polling results that reflected best on the candidate preferred by the media were the results that were judged to be the most “reliable.”

a version of this newspaper ad is also being displayed on Toronto billboards

But let’s not pick on The Toronto Star. Six days prior to the election, Global Television called the mayoral contest “a close two-man race.” The day before the election a Toronto Sun columnist speculated that the results would be so close a recount might be necessary – the columnist no doubt having been influenced by an article the paper had already run which said the candidates were “locked in a statistical tie.”

On Saturday, CTV Television said it was “a very tight race” – even though it had reported on the results of the aforementioned “unusual poll” on Friday. For it’s part, CBC Television ended a Friday website article with a dramatic flourish:

Both campaigns say they expect a close race with votes being counted into the late hours of Monday night.

Have I mentioned that the election winner was determined just eight minutes after the polls closed – at 8:08 pm?

The Globe and Mail, to give credit where it’s due, reported on the accurate poll in the Saturday edition of its paper, two days before the election. But just two days prior to that this same publication was littered with articles describing the race as “a dead heat” and the candidates as being “locked in a dead heat” and “locked in a tight battle“.

In other words, journalists – and pollsters – missed the mark in this case. Rather spectacularly.

Let us keep in mind that this was a fairly straightforward matter. Two prominent candidates. A handful of poll results. A limited number of possible scenarios. Even so, anyone who thought that “the experts” understood what was afoot was profoundly disappointed.

You could see it on the faces of the television reporters last night. It was clear they hadn’t expected anything like a definitive victory. It was clear they hadn’t anticipated that election night might be over before their election night coverage had even begun.

Climate change is a far more complicated matter than choosing between two candidates for mayor. So the next time you hear a journalist declare that global warming will lead to all manner of horrors, cast your mind back to this moment and remember that the media frequently doesn’t know what it’s talking about.

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Entry filed under: media, predictions that failed. Tags: , , , , .

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