Australia’s obsession with opinion polls is eroding political leadership



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Malcolm Turnbull’s days were numbered as the Newspoll losses continued to mount.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Ian Cook

In its early days, political opinion polling’s leading advocate, George Gallup, sold it as an essential tool for democracy. He believed polling made for better representation because it allowed politicians to take the people’s “pulse”.

But opinion polling didn’t so much enhance democracy as remake it.

Thanks to Gallup, polls have become so ubiquitous in modern-day politics that we’re now convinced they can accurately predict elections. (Even though Donald Trump’s surprising victory in the 2016 US presidential election suggests otherwise.) Gallup ran his first poll in the US in 1935 and in Australia in 1941.

Since then, opinion polling has changed every liberal democracy by turning politics into a contest between two sales teams trying to synthesise a product they believe voters want and diluting what was once the key role of politicians: to provide leadership.

Polls driving the news cycle

In Australia, this can be seen in the revolving door of prime ministers over the past decade. Polling isn’t the sole reason for this political instability, but it’s played an important part.

Obsessive poll-watching has become standard practice for politicians, as well as the journalists who cover them. This is partly because polls have become news stories in themselves, and not just at election times. A new poll is “news” because it provides the latest measure of the mood of the electorate, which is what everyone wants to know.




Read more:
Election explainer: what are the opinion polls and how accurate are they?


The weekly countdown of Malcolm Turnbull’s losses in the Newspoll is a case in point. Because Turnbull arbitrarily set a threshold of 30 Newspoll losses as his justification to challenge the leadership of Tony Abbott, the media fixated on the same arbitrary threshold during his time in office.

When Turnbull lost his 30th straight Newspoll, the media made it feel like a death knell.

Before Abbott, Julia Gillard was dumped for Kevin Rudd because internal Labor polling predicted he could swing crucial votes Labor’s way and save the party from a disastrous defeat in the 2013 election.

In her parting shot to her party, Gillard made clear what she felt had contributed to its decline in leadership:

…real thought has to be given to how to make any leadership contest one in which candidates have to articulate why they want to lead Labor and the nation. … The identification of the top new ideas – not just who is top of the opinion polls.

As soon as Scott Morrison was picked to replace Turnbull, all eyes turned again to the polls to see how the electorate would respond.

In the latest Newspoll, the Coalition had closed the gap with Labor somewhat, but still trailed overall 46-54%. The Fairfax-Ipsos poll showed similar numbers.

The slightly good news for Morrison: he led Bill Shorten as better prime minister 45-32%. But as many commentators have pointed out, this isn’t much of an improvement on where Turnbull was a few weeks ago.

So, not much has changed for the Liberals and it appears not much will – they’re stuck with Morrison now. Some are probably asking themselves now if the spill was worth it, particularly with so many marginal seats in play in the next election and the Coalition sitting on a one-seat majority.

The impact on decision-making

A less visible effect of polling has been the impact it’s had on conversations inside the major parties.

In some regards, policymaking is no longer based solely on a leader’s principles and what the party stands for. It’s about which policies are most likely to keep the party ahead in the opinion polls.

It’s becoming increasingly unlikely for the inner core of senior politicians who run the parties to push through a necessary, but unpopular, policy with the goal of changing the minds of voters who don’t agree with it.




Read more:
How political opinion polls affect voter behaviour


Take Australia’s contentious asylum seeker policy, for instance. Following record numbers of boat arrivals in 2012, many polls were taken to gauge the public’s opinion on the Gillard Labor government’s handling of the issue.

The results showed a high degree of confusion. As many as one in five respondents reported uncertainty in a number of surveys. When that happens, a minor change in a poll’s wording can shift the results in major ways.

But those who wanted to turn back the boats were far more entrenched. In a 2012 survey by the Scanlon Foundation, 26% of respondents favoured “turning the boats back” as a solution to the crisis. Other polls showed that voters overwhelmingly blamed the government for the impasse.

There was an opportunity for our leaders to step in with a solution that would bring together the 74% of people who didn’t support a “turn back the boats” policy.

But faced with negative headlines and an unhappy electorate – only 6% of respondents in the Scanlon survey thought the government was doing a good job on asylum seeker policy – it was far more expedient for the government to take a hard line than to craft and sell a more nuanced approach that would address people’s concerns and provide a more humane outcome for asylum seekers.

Potential problems with polling

Another troubling aspect of polls is that the numbers are less real than they are made to look. Hard as they try, pollsters are increasingly having a harder time finding a representative sample of people to survey.

According to Cliff Zukin, the former president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, election polling is nearing a crisis:

Two trends are driving the increasing unreliability of election and other polling in the United States: the growth of cellphones and the decline in people willing to answer surveys.

The Pew Research Centre, for example, reported that 36% of those called in the US would agree to be polled in 1997 and only 9% agreed in 2016.

Many pollsters believe that IVR (interactive voice response), or robopolling, is the future. This automated software allows pollsters to make a higher volume of calls to compensate for the higher numbers of
hang-ups. Robopolling is also much cheaper.




Read more:
US election: how did the polls get it so wrong?


In Australia, Newspoll stopped surveying people by landline phones in 2015 and shifted to a mixed methodology of robopolling and online surveys. The new Newspoll was found to be less prone to random fluctuations, but appeared to lean a little to Labor, relative to other polls.

Ipsos still relies on live phone polling, both land lines and mobiles. While Ipsos’ polling results are generally well-regarded, some analysts have found them to underestimate Labor and overestimate the Greens.

Despite all these questions about the accuracy of polls in the mobile phone era, however, they did appear to provide an accurate prediction of the 2016 general election in Australia.

While this is perhaps reassuring, it will only continue to fuel their appeal. As journalist Gay Alcorn put it, Australia’s obsession with polling is not only dispiriting, but corrupting for our politics:

What’s sad is that we know it, but find it impossible to rise above it.The Conversation

Ian Cook, Senior Lecturer of Australian Politics

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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How to escape the media’s obsession with Trump and filter him from the web



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Washington Post Making America Kittens Again.
Author/Washington Post

David Glance, University of Western Australia

The world’s media reached a new low last week with their incessant coverage of the US President Donald Trump and a tweet he sent out containing the word “covfefe” – a supposed mistyping of “coverage”.

This came on the heels of a report published by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, which analyses the media’s obsession with all things Trump.

Looking at the first 100 days of his presidency, the report detailed that 41% of all news stories were about Trump. This was three times the amount of coverage of any previous US president. Even though Trump himself was the featured voice in 65% of these articles, 80% were negative.

The coverage has come at the cost of real reporting about what he has actually done in that time and what else is going on in the US and the rest of the world. The economy has only been discussed in 4% of the news coverage, and health care, despite attempts to repeal President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, managed a not much greater 12%.

It would be tempting to think that the media, especially US journalists, have been obsessed with Trump because of his self-declared war on the press as the “enemy of the people”. But it is likely to be far more prosaic than that. Trump has simply tapped into mainstream media’s evolving role as another form of reality-based entertainment. Articles on Trump become clickbait for those who can’t resist his latest gaff, hoping that this will be the definitive misstep that finally ends his political career.

Ultimately, however, covering Trump is all about driving clicks, and sites like the New York Times and Washington Post, CNN and others have all fallen prey to the single-minded pursuit of revenue-generating clicks.

Unfortunately for the public, this has done them a disservice and reading the Trump-laden news and commentary has become increasingly like stumbling into someone else’s personal and bitter family argument.

Take control with Trump Filters

Fortunately, there is a way that readers can take control of the situation without avoiding all news sites.

For Google Chrome, there is an extension called Trump Filter, written by developer Rob Spectre, which will remove article headlines and paragraphs of text that reference Donald Trump. On Apple iOS there are several blockers, but one that works reasonably well with Safari is “Trump Trump

The New York Times with Trump Filter and Trump Blocker.
New York Times

These blockers will remove most text that has a reference to Donald Trump but won’t remove images. The image above is the New York Times with several stories about Donald Trump filtered out.

For Google Chrome, there is another extension called “Make America Kittens Again” that replaces images of Trump with cute kittens (see the example below). This app will also replace other people’s images with kittens and allows you to add your own key words. So photos of Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen and Pauline Hanson can also be replaced with kittens.

The New York Times with Make America Kittens Again.
New York Times

What does this mean for the news?

Switching these extensions on does a number of things that have important consequences for the future of digital news.

The first is that it highlights why people are increasingly turning to social media to read their news because of those platforms’ ability to deliver news that users want to see, while filtering out the things they are simply not interested in.

This may be seen as a negative in terms of being fed news that has a particular bias, but there is a positive side to it in enabling users to take control and avert a site’s particular agenda.

Of course, these technologies, along with ad blockers, are going to change how news organisations have to deliver news to their customers and are unlikely to be welcomed. Google itself is said to be building an ad blocker directly into Chrome that will be switched on by default.

News organisations have increasingly been battling between delivering content that they believe the public “should” read, and content that they know the public wants to read and so consequently will drive clicks and advertising revenue.

The ConversationIn the case of Donald Trump, it’s hard to justify the sheer volume of stories, including those that are based on every tweet he sends late at night. The media seems to have followed its own interests without considering those of the reader.

David Glance, Director of UWA Centre for Software Practice, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

“CHRISTIANITY IN EUROPE COMING TO AN END”: VIENNA CARDINAL


The Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna has warned that Christianity in Europe is dying out. Christoph Cardinal Schönborn said at St. Stephen’s Cathedral on Easter Sunday, “The time of Christianity in Europe is coming to an end. A Christianity, which achieved such great things like this cathedral or the wonderful music we will hear today,” reports Hilary White, LifeSiteNews.com.

Cardinal Schönborn’s Easter homily follows comments he made earlier in which he criticised Austrian Church leaders for their failure to accept and promote the watershed 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae that reiterated the Church’s teaching against artificial birth control.

In March last year, the cardinal said that many bishops are “frightened of the press and of being misunderstood by the faithful.” The result is that contraception has become widely accepted and Europe is “about to die out.”

In this Sunday’s homily, the cardinal addressed the obsession of the secular media with the Church’s teachings on sexuality, saying that it has been the subject of a “massive preconception” that the Church is opposed to sexual happiness and freedom.

“The Church can help people acquire the right attitude towards sex, which is not an isolated thing of all-consuming importance. The quality of the entire relationship is what is important in a male-female partnership,” he said.

The decline of the Catholic Church in Austria mirrors that of the rest of Europe since the advent of the 1960s “sexual revolution.” While official Vatican statistics say that 72.7 percent of Austrians are Catholic, a 2005 European Social Survey found that just 63.9 percent of Austrians actually describe themselves as such and almost 30 percent say they have no religious affiliation at all. Weekly Mass attendance among Catholics in the country hovers around 10 percent and, between 1985 and 2002, the number of priests in Austria dropped by almost one-quarter.

Report from the Christian Telegraph