As a guy who does a pile of research and data crunching, one of the things I am most fascinated and puzzled by are public opinion polls (and all polls for that matter). 

The latest CRA poll finds the economy and health care followed by NB Power are the top areas of concern.    The CBC had a poll earlier in the week that found people are cynical and suspicious of politics and politicians.

The biggest flaw with these polls is they don’t set a context for the respondent.  The classic example of this is on taxes.  If you ask people should the government cut taxes – 90% will almost always say yes.  But if you ask should the government cut taxes – if it means adding three weeks to the average wait time or the closure of the local hospital, then you will get a far different response.

And then there is the role of the media.  I have vowed not to criticize the CBC on these pages but I will say that in general the media will churn out stories fostering cynicism and suspicion of politics and then they are “shocked, shocked” to find out the public is cynical and suspicious of politicians.  Newsflash to the media (including myself as a columnist) – the people get this attitude somewhere – it doesn’t just fall from the sky.

Same with health care.  There are ongoing challenges with health care.  No question.  But health care spending today in New Brunswick is up over a $1 billion per year in just the past 10 years with no increase in the population.  The politicians hear the public has “health care” as a top issue and they are inclined to throw more money at it.  Someone, somewhere should have figured out by now it is not a direct route from more spending to better outcomes.

But, again, health care is a darling media topic because it is low hanging fruit.  There is always someone ready to complain or some Premier ready to go outside the country for treatment.  Over the course of a year, I suspect that if you did a review of subject matter in Canadian newspapers topics most frequently covered would be in order: Politics, economy and health care.  And with the possible exception of the middle topic, the media coverage isn’t about good news.  Sorry, Anne Murray.

2 thoughts on “Poll-y-anna

  1. Well, my own (admittedly personal) impression is that health care has improved significantly since I moved here in 2001. When we arrived, the hospitals looked like they were from the 1950s and you simply couldn’t get a physician or find a walk-in clinic. Now that has completely changed. It will probably be a decade before we see this reflected in any economic numbers (health care improvements propagate really slowly) but I’m sure we will.

    From where I sit, newspapers continue on about health care because health care is a public service, the concept of which offends newspapers’ corporate owners. A similar pattern exists for schools, the post office and the CBC. They see a great deal of money to be made in the privatization of these services, so they attack them constantly, hoping to foster the impression that they would be much more efficiently run if run by the private sector.

    It is a tribute to the population that they maintain some sense of reality despite this media barrage. It helps that they know, few though the reports may be, that private education and health services in the U.S. are a disaster area. People are also able to sense that there is a bias to CTV and Global’s reporting. The polls reflect the negative influence of the media, but also the public’s resilience in the face of it.

  2. David –

    You have touched on an issue that both pollsters and their media partners are reluctant to discuss. Most of these relationships are based on “contra” – you give us the polls and we will give you the profile. Its a different take on “you get what you pay for.”

    If the media was sincere about context, rather than controversy, they would put up some money to get some real polling done. You can read more on my thoughts here http://hilltimes.com/page/view/.2004.september.27.baker

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