09 April 2018

Spin, bias, or just wrong? #nlpoli

If four media outlets all reported a story in precisely the same way despite some fairly obvious factual problems with their interpretation,  is it spin, bias, or just a mistake?

That's the logical question out of last week's post on the way local newsrooms had reported a recent political poll about premiers and popularity.

The answer is that it is more than a mistake.  It is less than spin.  There doesn't appear to be a deliberate misinterpretation.

Yet what happened is a form of bias, in the same sense that a research firm would look at bias as a source of error. 

The causes are not partisan.

They are systemic,  identifiable, and correctable.

But the story presented is incomplete and  therefore inaccurately describes what the poll results show.

02 April 2018

Conventional media bias #nlpoli

You know what "spin" is, right?

Spin is a biased interpretation of something to favour one side or the other.

You get spin when someone uses an interpretation of an event or information in order to modify the perception of an issue or event, particularly to either increase or decrease any negative impact on opinion.

Some people think it is only comes from public relations people.

Or maybe politicians.

But never the news media.

Spin happens in many places since you can find all sorts of people interpreting things in a way that favours their pet position or that harms an opponent.

Tek, for example the number of people - especially in politics - who have been running around the past few weeks saying that Dwight Ball is the third most popular premier in Canada. They are mostly Liberals and they have been furiously retweeting that idea.

But that's spin.  Pure and simple.

Except it didn't come from the Liberal Party.

Well, where did it come from then?

Well, there's a tale.

The information the idea is based on came from an Angus Reid poll.  The opinion research company asked a sample of Canadians in every province except Prince Edward Island what they thought about the local Premier.

In Newfoundland and Labrador,  42% gave Dwight Ball a favourable rating.  In a chart Angus Reid used to illustrate the story,  they showed the approval ratings from highest to lowest,  left to right.  



There's Dwight Ball,  third from the left, which is third from the top.

Third most popular.

Well,  no.

Angus Reid was careful to describe their results fairly and accurately.  After noting that only two Premiers actually had the support of a majority of those polled in their province,  Angus Reid said this about Dwight Ball and the rest of the Premiers who - take note - had a majority who *dis*-approved of their performance.
In a pack where the premiers with the best approval ratings aren’t exactly overwhelmingly endorsed by people in their respective provinces, the story for the rest of Canada’s premiers, even those with positive momentum, is hardly jubilant.
Just over two-in-five (42%) are pleased with the job Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball is doing. This represents a seven point increase for Ball, as his government announces plans for a new public health act in the forthcoming budget and implements a new policy to take on workplace harassment. This, in addition to the government’s inquiry into Nalcor Energy’s unpopular Muskrat Falls project, may be playing in Ball’s favour, as he rises for the second consecutive quarter.
Out of every five people surveyed by Angus Reid,  two approved of Dwight Ball's performance as Premier.

Only two.

Three did not. 

In fact, if you click on the link to get the full results from Angus Reid,  you find that 49% of respondents disapproved of Ball's performance and only 10% had no answer.

So where did this "third most popular" idea come from?

Conventional news media.

CBC ran a story that had as its headline "Dwight Ball 3rd most popular premier in Angus Reid poll."  The front end of the story focused on the change in Ball's approval over the past year, which is accurate,  but ended up with the "third-most-popular" claim. 

At the end of the story,  CBC tossed in a completely unrelated fact that in a Corporate Research Poll 41% of respondents said they would vote Liberal, as if the similarity of the two numbers was enough to connect two different questions (job approval versus party support).

In Newfoundland and Labrador, they are two very different questions, as CRA's polling has shown.  Support for Ball and the Liberals has not been tracking the same over time.  Ball's actually been behind his party in popular support for a chunk of the past year.  Didn't like the leader.  Would vote for the party.  Not an unusual response at all,  but the two things are not synchronised.  The leader and party questions are separate.  That's why it was a problem for CBC to muddle the two together.

Saltwire - that is, the Telegram and its family of papers - ran a headline that Ball had seen a jump in his approval, which is true,  and used the "third-most popular premier" as it's sub-head. The story quoted Angus Reid word-for-word on the bit about two-in-five respondents but you had to read down a way to get to that.  

NTV's story referred to Ball as the premier with the third-best rating.  Their report on the previous Angus Reid poll, in which Ball's position relative to other Premiers was identical,  notes merely that his position improved over time.  That poll-over-poll improvement is noted in all the stories and it is probably the most accurate way to describe the results.

VOCM also reported Ball was the "third most popular" Premier in the country. 

No one in either of the four newsrooms checked the full poll result. None of them even did the simple logical inference that if 42% approved of Ball,  then the rest didn't.  They certainly didn't notice that 42% was less than half.  

Instead, they just looked at the same chart they saw the last time from Angus Reid (below) and picked the "third-most popular" as their headline.


They also didn't notice the size of Dwight Ball's change is quite large and that it was large for the second time in a row.  look at Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and you will see similar big jumps in a relatively short span.  A 15 point jump in six months is pretty steep in a province where there's been no similar major shift in public opinion detected by any other polling firm.

Might be a problem with the poll.

Nope.

Ball is third most popular.

Except Ball isn't popular.

Only two Premiers had a majority support and could be reasonably considered popular.

Seven Premiers all had more residents who didn't approve of their performance, which seems to be a bigger part of the overall story.  Angus Reid presented its information that way.

You could have reasonably focused on the fact Ball's rating had jumped again by a fairly hefty amount even if the back to back big jumps look dodgy.

But to say he is the third most popular is... well... wrong.

If you want to know how people are misinformed, there's a really fine case study.  No conspiracy.  No collusion.  Apparently, not even an organised effort by the government officials of the type we used to see in this province between 2003 and 2010 to control the flow of information, to influence media stories, and manipulate public opinion. 

Nope.

Just a bunch of people who all got the story wrong in exactly the same way.

Some might would argue that spin has to be a deliberate choice but frankly, that's just spin. Truth is that spin is a form of bias.  There are all sorts of biases.  Something like a shared perspective among people doing the same sort of work in a small place can cause a wrong interpretation of events to reinforce itself.  After all, the folks in the local newsrooms all keep an eye on each other during the day. They talk among themselves.  Once the first story hit the air and the others heard the same general line, they would inevitably confirm their interpretation and get on to the next task.

Except, they all got it wrong.

-srbp-

*Revised 11:00 AM 02 Apr 18 to clarify sentences in the introduction

07 March 2018

No room for dissent? No time for silence. #nlpoli

The controversy about The Rooms' recent request for proposals is not about Muskrat Falls.

Maybe someone at The Rooms or within the provincial government thought that was the problem when Des Sullivan raised concerns about it.  After all, Des is well known as a critic of Muskrat Falls.  That might explain why Dean Brinton, The Rooms' chief executive,  issued a very short statement that apologized for using Muskrat Falls as an example when explaining the Crown corporation's policy about conflict of interest for advertising agencies responding to the proposal request.

Let us assume that Brinton made a really superficial mistake because otherwise  his response is insulting and condescending.  Any reasonable personal understood our ought to have understood that Sullivan was concerned about the implication that critics of the provincial government could not bid on government work.

Brinton didn't deal with that at all.

20 February 2018

TDIH: "Quebec paper reports Lower Churchill agreement" #nlpoli #cdnpoli


Two decades ago, there was talk of a deal to develop not one, not two, but three dams in Labrador.

The story broke in a Quebec newspaper,  Le soleil,  on February 19 and the next day the Telegram did a front pager written by business editor Chris Flanagan.

"The big bonus for Newfoundland from a deal to develop the Lower Churchill is not simply cheaper electricity and a transmission line from Quebec,"  Flanagan wrote, "but an opportunity to send natural gas-generated power the other way, says a Quebec journalist with high level sources in both provinces."

"The Newfoundland government has done studies examining the potential of bringing ashore natural gas from Hibernia and other sites on the Grand Banks, using it to produce electricity and selling it on the North American grid, said Michel Vastel, a veteran political correspondent and business writer with the Quebec newspaper, Le Soleil."

Vastel told The Telegram his sources were in both provinces and that the provincial government in Newfoundland and Labrador had studies supporting development of offshore natural gas. 

"In his 'briefings,' from high-level sources, Vastel said reports have estimated Newfoundland's average rate will increase 30 per cent over the next 20 years -- an increase that won't happen if the Lower Churchill goes ahead."

The idea had its critics.  "Stan Marshall, the president and CEO of Fortis Inc., which owns Newfoundland Power, has said a transmission line to St. John's makes no economic sense.

Here are some key details of the deal that never was:

  • "...Newfoundland will receive approximately 800 megawatts, Labrador 200 and Quebec 2,100 from the Lower Churchill. Construction of the project will create 12,000 person-years of employment and power is expected to be on the grid by 2007."
  • "The Lower Churchill hydroelectric project consists of Gull Island, with a generating capacity of 2,264 megawatts, Muskrat Falls, at 824 megawatts and Upper Lobstick, at 160 megawatts for a total of 3,238 megawatts. The cost of the project, including transmission lines, is estimated at $12 billion."
In the talks actually announced in early March 1998,  the two provinces set aside $20 million to study Muskrat Falls and focused instead on expanding Churchill Falls and building Gull Island.
20 years later we got one tiny dam and big transmission line for that.

The Telegram included a cost of the transmission line from Labrador:  "According to several news reports, the Churchill-to-St. John's transmission line -- including an underwater component across the Straits -- would cost about $2 billion, and is to be financed by Ottawa."

"The federal government's major benefit would come from reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that will go a long way to helping Canada reach emission targets established at the 1997 Convention on Climate Change in Kyoto, Japan."

-srbp-





03 January 2018

Politics and History: SRBP at 13. #nlpoli

The week before Christmas, I dropped by The Rooms for a quick check of some government documents in the provincial archive.

The last time I'd been there, a major public display covered the Newfoundland experience in the  First World War.  The provincial government is, at least on paper, still in the midst of its official celebration and commemoration of events a century ago. In practice though, the official celebration ended in the middle of 2016 and the Centennial of Beaumont Hamel. With the exception of a small, sparsely attended symposium at Memorial University, events to mark one of the most significant periods in Newfoundland and Labrador history are now over. What was so striking about The Rooms is the complete absence of any Great War commemorations beyond the travelling exhibit from the mainland about Vimy Ridge.

This fits with an emphasis on celebrating the slaughter in 1916 and that is all most people know of the Great War and Newfoundland.  It drives home the more troubling aspect of this historical blindness since the war had a far greater impact on Newfoundland in 1917 and 1918 than it had had in a single day on the Somme.  The story is far more relevent today than Beaumont Hamel ever could be.

In April, 1917 the Newfoundland Regiment fought at Monchy-le-Preux with as dramatic a result as the one of Beaumont Hamel the year before.  This battle as well as others through the spring and summer put a further strain on manpower, already severely tested in 1916. The result would be a conscription crisis that lasted almost a year and that was marked by both rural/urban and Protestant versus Roman Catholic divisions. Recruiting had been consistently most successful in St. John's, while in rural areas proportionately fewer men volunteered.

One popular view  held that the burden of the war had been born predominantly by Protestants from St. John's while those from the bays, particularly Roman Catholics, had shirked their national responsibility. Regardless of whether such views were right or wrong, they revealed the deep divisions within the country and a lack of understanding of one part for another that has echoes in the current day's debate about resettlement.

The recruiting problems mixed together with allegations of profiteering by Water Street merchants and an increasingly boisterous opposition to greet Prime Minister Edward Morris on his return from Imperial War Cabinet meeting in the spring of 1917. There should have been an election that fall but Morris had already  decided to introduce legislation in the House to postpone the election for a year due to the wartime contingency. He tried and eventually succeeded in forming a coalition government with the opposition Liberal and Unionist parties.

With Morris nominally serving as Prime Minister, opposition Leader W.F. Lloyd took on the role of deputy prime minister. In a secret agreement with Lloyd and union leader William Coaker, Morris agreed to resign by the end of the year with Lloyd as his replacement. In addition, the new administration created a Department of Militia to take over the administration of the war effort from the volunteer National Patriotic Association. In the event, the new department was no more successful than the NPA had been recruiting but at least some of the stink of corruption that attach to the NPA with allegations of wartime profiteering had gone.

On the Sunday nearest July 1, the country marked the first anniversary of the tragic day in 1916. This was one of the first four commemorations established throughout the Empire. As such, the event was worthy of commemoration in its own right and yet the day passed in 2017 without any mention in the official Centennial commemorations.

 No sooner had Morris announced a coalition, that he boarded a steamer and returned to England. He resigned in December 1917 and was created Baron Morris of Waterford early in 1918. Lloyd's coalition served through to the end of the war in the Paris peace talks in 1919 before he was replaced by Richard Squires. Morris was last of the long serving prime ministers of Newfoundland. His successors lasted short periods, some only a matter of a few days, in a fluid political climate of shifting coalitions and alliances.

Richard Squires only stands out because of the allegations of corruption in his first administration and because of his return to office in a second administration shortly before the collapse of responsible government. Through the entire period of the 1920s, the government struggled with mounting debt and difficulty in meeting its financial obligations while the politicians fought among themselves.

-srbp-


02 January 2018

Bridging to Nowhere... or not #nlpoli

Since December 2015,  Dwight Ball has been talking about the federal government as the source of cash he wants to tap into.

Specifically he has been talking a lot about how Newfoundland and Labrador is being screwed because it cannot collect Equalization.  Ball's whining about Equalization is part of his strategy to avoid making any real changes to the strategic trajectory set by the Conservatives in 2007.  Essentially it is about spending as much as you can for as long as you can. 

With that in mind, here are three choice quotes from Issues and Answers'  year-ender with Premier Dwight Ball. 

After Lynn Burry points out that the provincial government pays 83% of the cost of health care, up from the days when the province and federal government split the cost 50/50 the Premier said:

"I agree the Equalization program does not work for Newfoundland and Labrador."

Three things, mostly for Lynn Burry.

1.  Health care is entirely within provincial jurisdiction under the constitution.  The federal government isn't actually supposed to put *any* money into it.

2.   The federal government covered half the cost of everything in Newfoundland and Labrador at one point because the provincial government was so poor it couldn't pay for provincial services on its own.  That's why every Premier until Danny Williams came along wanted to get Newfoundland and Labrador off the dole. Williams and every Premier since him, including the current one,  has been trying to get back on it.

3.  Federal health care funding never came from Equalization.  It has always come under a separate funding arrangement.  At one point they called it the Canada Health Transfer and it went along with social services funding in the Canada Social Transfer. Now the federal funding is combined under one thing called the Canada Health and Social Transfer.

"What is it about Newfoundland and Labrador that you can define us as a 'have' province?"

The answer is simple and, in some ways it is astonishing that over the past 15 years provincial politicians can get away with talking utter nonsense about a really simple thing like Equalization.  Politicians from all parties trot out this foolishness  and reporters just lap it up or, in Lynn Burry's case,  fuel the idiocy with questions that are just set up with the same stuff.

Equalization takes money from the federal government's general revenue and gives it to provincial governments that don't make enough money on their own to come up to a common, national income standard.   The governments use that money to deliver services that are entirely provincial under the constitution.  That means the provinces are supposed to make enough money on their own to cover those costs. 

The transfer of federal cash is based on the recognition that all provinces are not equal in their ability to raise cash, so the federal government steps in to give some a hand.  That way Canadians are not short-changed if - and here's the kicker - the provincial government spends its money appropriately.

Four provinces make more than the standard income.  They are known colloquially as "have" provinces:  British Columbia,  Saskatchewan,  Alberta, and Newfoundland and Labrador.

"Have not" means you don't bring in enough cash on your own to make ends meet and so you get a hand-out.

If Dwight Ball really speaks to the Premier of Nova Scotia and moans that this province does not get Equalization,  he's lucky Stephen McNeil doesn't punch him in the bake and then kick him in the goolies just for good measure. Like most Premiers, McNeil would give some part of his anatomy to be raking in as much cash as Dwight Ball does every year.

Newfoundland and Labrador *is* a have province by any measure.  It takes in more money per person than any government in the country save Alberta.   The problem is that successive provincial governments have spent even more than that again.  There's no good reason for the overspending.  That's why the government is in the hole all the time.

"...Equalization is not the answer to our revenue or deficit problem."

Huh?

If it is not the answer to our problem, why complain about not getting any of it?



-srbp-