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1 June 2015 Edition

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It was the polls ‘wot won it’

• Polls allow newspapers to report an election campaign as a race rather than focus on the issues

In Irish media coverage of the polls, for Sinn Féin one problem has been getting included in ‘the race’ in the first place

WHO REALLY WON the British election? Who will win the coming Leinster House vote? It is the same victor in not just these polls but the marriage equality referendum in Ireland too. The news media are the clear winners.

With their opinion polls in one hand and a dictionary of hype and cliché in the other they take increased readers, listeners, viewers, page clicks and the higher advertising spend that these audiences bring. All the news media have to do is report on the election campaigns as a game, a race.

Take for example the now inescapable leaders’ debates. It is high drama for viewers but low-cost TV for the news media. They don’t pay scriptwriters or actors’ fees. It all happens in a TV studio and generates big audiences.

It’s summed up in a prescient 1980 US election study article by Anthony Broh who pronounced: “The race, not the winner, is the story.”

There were two massive problems with the Westminster election coverage: inaccurate reporting of polls and a reliance on reporting the first-past-the-post elections as a game, a gladiatorial contest.

After the first leaders’ debate, the Guardian newspaper had a “snap Guardian ICM poll”. The question here was not who you would vote for but “Who won the contest?”

The Guardian front page and website ranked the previous evening’s performers with the headline “Labour buoyed as Miliband edges Cameron in snap poll”. For the record, 25% of voters thought Miliband had won, compared to 24% for Cameron. With a plus or minus 3% margin of error, the correct interpretation would be to say that there was no clear winner. Inside the Guardian they had no fewer than five journalists offering views of the debate while Michael White gave marks out of ten for each leader.

The Telegraph judged that “Miliband flops”, while the Times and Independent focussed on the Scottish National Party, Greens and UKIP as performing better. The Sun’s headline was “Oops, I just lost my election” along with a picture of Miliband stumbling slightly as he left the stage and the strapline “Miliband blows his chance on TV”.

This is nonsense reporting. From an Irish perspective, with an election, looming we need to speak out on the bad and inaccurate reporting because it is at times worse here.

In Ireland, for Sinn Féin one problem has been getting included in ‘the race’ in the first place. The party is often excluded from being even considered part of the ‘the game’. For example, in The Irish Times between 2005 and the 2011 election the paper published 28 polls. Sinn Féin was mentioned in one headline, in March 2005.

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•  Elections in Ireland are about a lot more than who comes first

In the Sunday Business Post during the same period there are 57 opinion polls published, Sinn Féin gets just the one front-page headline. Yes, it was March 2005, in the weeks after the killing of Robert McCartney and as Sinn Féin moved towards a special conference on policing.

It is not only Sinn Féin who are excluded. The Greens, the Socialist Party, United Left Alliance and even the (now defunct) Progressive Democrats were excluded.

In 2007, all of the race media coverage is about Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour, with no mention of Sinn Féin. The Greens and the PDs are only included as part of possible coalition formations. Newsflash – not one paper or news media outlet accurately predicted the eventual Fianna Fáil/Green coalition.

In the 2009 EU and local elections, all of the ‘horse race’ poll coverage in Irish newspapers focuses on places one to three. There is, bizarrely, no fourth place in this election. Yes, it was Sinn Féin who came in fourth.

In 2011, Sinn Féin did get mentioned three times in terms of being in an election race compared to 38 for Fine Gael, 15 for Fianna Fáil and eight for the Labour Party. Is this really an accurate reflection of the 2011 election campaign?

In the last two years the Sinn Féin poll mentions and headlines have increased but how accurate are they?

Take the Sunday Business Post Red C polls. In January, Sinn Féin at 20% is down 4% from 24% in December 2014 and no headline mentions. In February, Sinn Féin is at 21%, and again there is no headline mention. In March, a 17% Sinn Féin poll figure is presented as a “slump” on the front page. By April, Sinn Féin is back at 22% and the headline “Sinn Féin surges”.

All of the results were within the margin of error – there is no real change in support. Sinn Féin has record levels of support and the Irish news media are really bad at reporting this. 

What we can do is for Sinn Féin supporters to use their tweets, Facebook posts and other social media to highlight these inaccuracies when and where they happen and call out the Establishment media on their bad reporting.

Elections in Ireland are about a lot more than who comes first.

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