Home > Uncategorized > When Verbs Trump Numbers #vicvotes

When Verbs Trump Numbers #vicvotes

November 12, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

When opinion polls reflect a reasonably stable picture, they are actually quite boring news.  It requires journalists to engage in verbal gymnastics to inject drama where none exists.  The reporting of today’s Newspoll on the Victorian election in the Australian is a good example of elaborate and hyperbolic framing designed to create excitement where none is warranted.

Let’s match the words to the numbers to make my point.

The shock! horror! of the story relates to an increase in dissatisfaction with Victorian Premier, John Brumby. It is reported thusly:

…the proportion of voters dissatisfied with Mr Brumby has jumped from 42 per cent to 48 per cent.

This development is described as



the highest negative rating for a Victorian Labor premier since Joan Kirner was resoundingly voted out of office in 1992.

In case the reader is not convinced of the dire implications of a six point shift in a single poll metric, the story provides some gratuitous historical insights:

At the time, the state was an economic basket case, with unemployment levels soaring, financial institutions collapsing and consumer confidence at rock bottom.

But wait!  There’s more!

Mr Brumby’s satisfaction rating has dived from 45 per cent to 42 per cent

That’s right — a three percent dive.

So how is Ted Baillieu, doing?  With all of this alarming diving on the part of John Brumby, the Liberal leader must be sitting pretty, right?


It seems Victorian voters are not particularly happy with either choice of leader, with Mr Baillieu also seeing a significant increase in his dissatisfaction rating from 42 per cent to 46 per cent.

So while a THREE PERCENT increase in dissatisfaction is a “dive” for Brumby, a FOUR PERCENT increase on the same metric for Baillieu is “a significant increase“.  You don’t need to be George Lakoff to intuit a little bit of framing trickery at work here.

The journalist isn’t finished with softening the stats for Baillieu by reactivating her fixation with statistical insignificance:

Crucially, however, the Opposition Leader’s satisfaction rating did not drop, increasing by one point to 40 per cent.

On what possible basis did the word “crucially” find its way into a sentence that describes a one percent improvement in a very low satisfaction rating?

This is not so much reporting as fluffing.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. markus
    November 13, 2010 at 10:16

    Hit the nail squarely on the head, Phil.

    And, on top of all that, surely the margin-of-error makes a 3 percentage point move relatively meaningless ?

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