Here’s a good example of how journalists can get trapped in their own narratives. 

Today The Australian is a little embarrassed by its own Newspoll, which shows virtually no change from last fortnight’s. This, according to Simon “drops king” Benson, is “despite Bill Shorten’s plan to axe tax-credit ­refunds for more than one million retirees”. Benson’s initial copy — changed overnight — said the result was “in apparent defiance” of Labor’s dividend imputation refundability policy. It would have been more accurate to refer to it being in defiance of his newspaper’s editorial line. The Oz has been campaigning heavily against the policy and continues today, reporting an attack on it by the IPA (there’s a shock).

Now, fair enough, some of the Oz‘s younger and more sensible specialists like the policy, but given it is only read by self-funded Sunshine Coast retirees, the editorial line is understandable. 

But there’s a different problem on display — one facing every journalist who has to report on their paper’s poll. Cash-strapped newspapers devote substantial resources to polling, so the journalists reporting them are under pressure to maximise their value, even if the poll — like today’s Newspoll — tells us nothing has changed. Even changes far within the margin of error must be hyped into something significant — so the one percentage point improvement in Labor’s primary vote has to be portrayed as having actually occurred in the real world. But Labor’s vote didn’t increase; it’s statistical noise.

The other problem is that, contrary to basic rules of logic, for poll reporters, correlation must always equal causation. If some political event has happened in the last two weeks, then ipso facto it must somehow be reflected in the poll results. This is what has tripped up the Oz, because it has devoted much of the last fortnight to demonising a Labor policy, without apparent effect. 

In fact, most Australians who reside on planet Earth, outside the bubble in Canberra, have likely barely heard of the detail of Labor’s policy and have no views on it either way. It will take weeks and months for any strong opinions to form and, maybe, hurt Labor in the polls (or, all those wealthy retirees who wouldn’t vote Labor to save their lives will … say they won’t vote Labor). By then, of course, other more recent events will be being blamed for any polling shifts.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey