Fellow citizens, boys and girls,
there was an Australian newspaper that believed it could publish any interpretation it liked of "its" fortnightly Newspoll and not be held to account.
That newspaper just happened to be called The Australian...curiously enough.
When the 2007 federal election campaign came along, The Australian did what it had always done and spun the Newspoll figures into the most flattering interpretation it could muster to support the Coalition.
Despite the Howard Government being trounced in every poll, The Australian did its best imitation of "Comical Ali" of the Iraq War fame to present the figures in the best light for the incumbent.
Unfortunately, for The Australian, two changes had occurred that it had not anticipated:
1 - the all-pervasive reach of the internet
2 - bloggers with qualifications in statistics who were prepared to call bullshit on these distortions and used the internet to publish their findings.
The Australian was none too pleased.
My colleague, Greg Jericho, wrote about the history of this 'encounter' between The Australian and the bloggers called "The War the Bloggers Won"
Since the 2007 federal election media reporting of polls has improved. The need for bloggers to call out distorted interpretations has diminished and so their presence on the internet has lessened.
Nevertheless, regular high-quality analysis can still be found by William Bowe at https://www.pollbludger.net/ and Dr. Kevin Bonham at http://kevinbonham.blogspot.com.au/.
This week, The Australian was up to its old tricks again publishing a ridiculous interpretation of a leading question relating to public support for company tax cuts - which I called out here "The Australian newspaper is fiddling the figures on company tax cuts"
Mr. Bowe called it "one of the most poorly framed poll questions I've ever seen "
Dr. Bonham first tweeted "As others have noted the tax cuts question is woefully unsuited for the conclusions drawn from it because of its skewed preamble. Asking when a policy should be delivered is no way to gauge support for a policy."
and then went on to write on his blog:
More Poor Poll Reporting In The Oz
"It's disappointing to report that the national broadsheet, home of the most predictively reliable voting intention poll, has besmirched itself by commissioning another dubiously worded issues poll and allowing repeat offender Simon Benson to go silly with the results. The Australian's recent poll on company tax cuts itself has been panned for sins of omission in the preamble wording (eg see Adrian Beaumont's writeup). However it is the use made of it by the newspaper that is the bigger problem here. The poll question stated the tax cuts as a fait accompli, and then asked how they should be implemented. This makes the "Not at all" option underestimate opposition, since some respondents might not have supported the tax cuts in the first place, but might believe the government should nonetheless go ahead with what it has said it will do, especially when asked when it should be done. For the same reason, adding the "As soon as possible" and "In stages over the next 10 years" options together would not meaningfully show the rate of support for the plan even had the plan been accurately described.
Yet this didn't stop Benson from delighting the culture warriors with a claim that tax cuts were more popular than same-sex marriage (ignoring, alongside the preamble's defects, that an opt-in postal plebiscite is not a poll and that generic polls on same-sex marriage actually tended to show higher support than the actual outcome). And this was the second time in two polls that Benson was talking nonsense. Last fortnight, Newspoll found 46-43 opposition to a referendum on allowing dual citizens to become MPs but Benson reported this as "Most voters are also opposed", and also referred to "A majority of voters, 46 per cent". Not only is 46% obviously not a "majority" or "most voters", but the three-point margin is within the poll's margin of error anyway."
Perhaps this was a misjudgement on the paper's behalf, perhaps it was an oversight, perhaps it was a deliberate attempt to distort...we can only speculate as to the explanation.
What isn't speculation, however, is if such distorted interpretations become commonplace, the bloggers will return in numbers to knock the cobblers out of the park.