The public clamor against excess in the pork barrel inquiry may have restored some sanity and sobriety to the inquisition. The hearing last Thursday featuring Dennis Cunanan looked positively deflated. Yellow ribbon chairman Teofisto Guingona had little to say. Cunanan had nothing significant to reveal. Puppeteer Leila de Lima had nothing to do. No truckloads and slam dunk announcements this time. Many senators were tongue-tied. The most talkative turned out to be, surprise-surprise, Sen. Grace Poe.
The sterling lesson here is that we the people (media and the public together) can, indeed, make congressional hearings accountable to the nation, in the same way that we can make public officials and public agencies accountable.
With this salutary development in hand, I would like to urge the media and the public to now focus the spotlight on the opinion survey firms—principally SWS and Pulse Asia—to make them accountable for the opinion polls they periodically conduct and release, to mystify the public.
An imperative and urgent reckoning
I thought this reckoning became imperative and urgent after SWS, in total defiance of public dismay over President Aquino’s incompetence in dealing with the Typhoon Yolanda disaster, released last January a survey that purported to show that 73 percent of Yolanda victims had expressed satisfaction with President Aquino’s response to the catastrophe.
According to the Philippine Star issue of January 24, President Aquino received a “very good” satisfaction rating from the victims of Super Typhoon Yolanda in the Social Weather Stations’ (SWS) latest survey.
It is surreal that SWS and Pulse Asia are the only opinion polling firms in the world that talk in terms of public satisfaction, and net satisfaction. All other firms, including the top pollsters in the US measure only approval and disapproval.
This is doubly funny because Filipinos keenly distrust their public officials and are never satisfied with them.
The SWS survey used face-to-face interviews of 1,550 persons nationwide, with no special focus on Eastern Visayas, the region most ravaged by Yolanda. It culled respondents from everywhere, including Metro Manila, which was not touched by Yolanda.
Malacanang predictably was ecstatic over the survey. Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. intoned solemnly: “It is gratifying that those who suffered greatly appreciate what their President and their government have done to ease their pain and alleviate their plight despite the shortcomings and challenges still being hurdled.”
This stands in stark contrast with the statements of the People Surge alliance of Yolanda victims, which complained that four months after 11/8, victims’ families still lack assistance from the government and have become destitute.
Reactions to the SWS report was electric and angry. Most in the citizenry could not believe the survey findings; more were appalled that SWS dared to offer its report at a time when suffering from Yolanda was at its highest in Leyte and East Visayas, and the death toll had buried many times over President Aquino’s self-imposed ceiling of 2,500 dead.
Inevitably, the anger blasted as well Pulse Asia, SWS’ tandem in the opinion polling duopoly in the country. Only SWS and PulseAsia conduct polling on public issues. Most other polling firms are market research outfits, doing work for private companies.
Because opinion research is believed to be also protected under the constitutional right of freedom of the press, survey firms hang tough in the face of wide public criticism, and efforts to curb their practices. Even the Commission on Elections (Comelec) could not enforce its guidelines on them during the 2010 elections.
Eight questions that matter
We Filipinos are not, by any stretch, the only ones to express keen dissatisfaction with public opinion polls. This is a live issue also in the United States and much of the western world.
It is because of public suspicion of opinion polls that many countries today encourage the citizenry to question the work of polling firms.
In his book, Polling and the Public: What Every Citizen Should Know (CQ press, 2007), Herbert Asher says that there are eight basic questions that the citizen and the public should ask of every opinion poll and its author. These are:
Who is the poll’s sponsor?
Does the sponsor have an agenda? How might that agenda influence the poll, the question wording, or the sponsor’s interpretation of events?
Is the sample representative?
Were proper sampling techniques followed?
What is the margin of error?
From what population was the sample taken?
Some polls survey only the members of one particular group or party, or people of a certain age, depending on the information they are seeking to discover. It’s important that the sample is not self-selected. Always check the population being sampled, and do not assume it is the general public.
How are the questions worded? Are loaded, problematic, or vague terms used?Could the questions be confusing to the average citizen? Are the questions available with the poll results? If not, why not?
Do the questions seem to lead you to respond one way or the other? Do they oversimplify issues or complicate them?
Are the survey topics the kind that people are likely to have information and opinions about? Respondents rarely admit that they don’t know how to answer a question, so responses on obscure or technical topics are likely to be more suspect than others.
What is the poll’s response rate? A lot of “don’t knows”, “no opinions”, or refusals to answer can have a decided effect on the results
Do the poll results differ from those of other polls, and if so, why? Don’t necessarily assume that public opinion has changed.
What do the results mean? Who is doing the interpreting? What are that person’s motives? For instance, pollsters who work for one party will have an interpretation of the results that is favorable to that party. Try interpreting the results independently.
Media uncritical in using surveys
SWS and Pulse Asia generally gloss over these questions when they come up with their surveys. Their websites are unhelpful and evasive.
Pulse Asia is especially secretive about politicians commissioning its surveys. SWS hides behind a blanket cover that Business World commissions its surveys, which no one in the paper knows about, least of all its majority owner, Manny Pangilinan. Both outfits have never admitted to taking money from the Palace for their pro-administration surveys.
It is striking that unlike in other countries where polling firms follow a strict code of ethics, SWS and Pulse Asia are pretty much at liberty to do what they please.
Local market research firms are more ethically minded because they follow professional norms. They have to because their business would suffer otherwise.
Perhaps the biggest contributor to the free-wheeling practices of SWS and Pulse Asia is the virtual complicity of mainstream media in their business and racket.
Survey results are dutifully treated as news by newspaper and broadcast news editors. In doing so, media provides polls the oxygen to breathe and thrive.
In the United States, newspapers like the New York Times follow a set of questions that must be satisfied before they will report on the survey. Here in the Philippines, there is no such thing.
Another factor that makes for the credibility of surveys in the US is that very often, media organizations are sponsors or co-sponsors of surveys themselves. They invest money in the research.
Here in our country, media companies, not even the wealthiest, don’t want to spend money on opinion research.
ABS-CBN and GMA network spend millions on rival surveys that rank them on top in the ratings of shows. They don’t have the slightest interest in opinion research that indicate what the public is thinking on issues or about their government. They prefer to be spoonfed by SWS and Pulse Asia.
Business and racket of opinion polling
The review of opinion polling in the country will become more urgent and important as the politics of 2016 draws ever closer. The election season is the time when the business and the racket of public opinion polling unfurls its wings and kicks into high gear.
This year we will see the soft opening of 2016 politics, when candidacies for the Presidency and Congress will be initially tested in the light of public opinion. Any time now, SWS and Pulse Asia are going to bombard us with supposed surveys of presidential aspirants and prospective senatorial candidates – in order to turn the 2016 election into a horse race early.
Politicians, no less than the media, are the accomplices of SWS and Pulse Asia in inflicting on the nation false and inauthentic public opinion polling. Politicians pay big money just to keep their names up in the ratings. They figure to cash in on this when election comes.
Neither the politicians nor the polling outfits should bank on the status quo staying put. I think the final two years of the Aquino presidency and the runup to 2016 will bring forth a host of changes. There is a new dynamic abroad in the land that will not settle for the old way of doing things.
Some big totem poles have started to fall by the wayside. Pork barrel is the biggest so far. Abusive congressional hearings are now tottering. Phony opinion polling should be next.