Sat | Aug 19, 2017

Post-election analysis of media needed

Published:Wednesday | March 23, 2016 | 3:00 AM
Colin Steer

The late Professor Carl Stone used to tie his polling of political opinions, behaviour and voting trends to an area of academic study that he taught for several years at the University of the West Indies which undergirded his statistical findings. That area of study was political sociology. If it is not now being taught, it may be useful to revisit it, hopefully by someone who knows what he or she is doing.

Amid all the post-election Monday-morning quarterback analyses and 20/20 vision that seek to explain why the People's National Party (PNP) lost 11 of the seats it previously held to the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) in the recent general election, there is one omission that warrants inclusion. That factor is the role media played in hyping or shaping expectations by their news reporting and editorial handling of the analyses of hired 'experts'.

In the early afternoon of February 26, as I drove through sections of the Corporate Area, I had a sense of an exhausted city, still numb, after seeing the results of the previous day's elections.

A colleague told me some days later that at the place where he works, even the most optimistic of Labourites did not expect those results. And my question is: Why? Why was the society so seemingly caught off-guard by the results? I suggest a few reasons.

First, in much of the pre-election news reporting, there was unrestrained enthusiasm that the PNP was cruising to victory. Often, in the dominant print and broadcast media, the pulsating narrative suggested an absence of professional distance. Added to that, even with the cautionary "anything can change", the conclusion of the analysts over several weeks was that the election was all over, bar the shouting. News departments then seemingly took the conclusion of the experts as given, without sufficient interrogation.

It seems to me that what is acknowledged to be snapshots of public opinion taken at a moment in time could have been tempered by deeper, on-the-ground reporting, where journalists, having visited selected communities across the country, would have a better sense of the issues on people's mind. Regrettably, such reporting is ceding ground more and more to narratives about tweets, twerking and twats.

While media outlets did set aside some resources for 'regular reporting', considerably more money seemed to have been dedicated to frequent polling. The interpretations of the pollsters were then published almost as gospel, even by outlets which had not themselves commissioned polls.

 

WHAT MOMENTUM?

 

There is also the possibility that some of the poll findings were not wrong - but the analyses of the data were. I am still puzzled, for example, why Don Anderson would conclude, as he did when he told a TVJ reporter a week or so before the election, that the "momentum" was with the PNP after he found that that party had picked up just over three per cent since his last survey, while the JLP had picked up more than five per cent in support. It would seem to me that a train travelling at a faster speed would have the momentum, but what do I know?

Also, while The Gleaner's pollster Bill Johnson had indicated in polls before the elections that some of the marginal seats were competitive, he could see nothing pointing to a PNP loss. In a February 14 lead story under the headline 'Cruise control', Johnson was quoted as saying, inter alia, "The movement definitely appears to be an orange movement and not a green movement ... . Everything seems to be pointing in the direction of a strong PNP victory."

Note that: a strong PNP victory. The article also said: Asked what could cause the momentum to slip from the PNP, Johnson said, "It is hard to see anything." A subsequent report on new polls from the marginal seats pointed to a trend favouring the JLP, but even then, a victory seemed the less likely of the possible outcomes.

Since the election, the PNP's loss has been attributed to that party's poor campaign strategy, its opting out of the national debates, and the JLP's 10-Point Plan and promises. I remain sceptical, however, that the Jamaican electorate across the country swings so wildly in the last week and a half of an election campaign. Often, perceptions are well set and the campaign reinforces those views. The notion that PNP supporters just decided overnight to sit out the elections is counterintuitive.

Again, the idea is being noised abroad: the PNP lost because their supporters failed to turn out as in the past. Yes, but is it possible that JLP supporters also did not turnout in greater numbers because they had reservations about the ticket, the party platform, the leadership, or were convinced that the PNP would win again?

Perhaps, a crash course or refresher in political sociology would do many of our pundits some good.

- Colin Steer is a communication specialist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and steercomm@gmail.com.