Sporting Magazine 3(12). National Sporting Library and Museum, Middleburg, VA.

Sporting Magazine 3(12). National Sporting Library and Museum, Middleburg, VA.

During an election, public opinion polls provide a seemingly endless stream of ready-made news fodder. They call it horse race journalism – that nonstop commentary on who’s ahead from one minute to the next.

But not many people – including some journalists – know there are rules spelled out in the Canada Election Act about how opinion polls can be reported on once the writ is dropped. It’s meant to protect the public from wonky or incomplete information while making crucial decisions (we can get enough of that from the guy on the next barstool!)

For reporting on the release of a poll in the past 24 hours, you must include all the details of the poll, including:

  1. Name of the poll’s sponsor
  2. Name of the polling firm
  3. Date the poll was conducted
  4. Group surveyed (ie. Saskatchewanians)
  5. Sample size
  6. Margin of error
  7. Exact wording of question
  8. In print media and on the web, directions on how to obtain the full survey report.

I’m not keen on the law saying what goes into print but, really, these aren’t outrageous rules. Careful journalists follow them anyways, because they understand quantitative data is ultimately as subjective and variable as the people being questioned.

Every poll is a single, limited snapshot, already history by the time it hits the front page. The public has a right to clearly see all the borders surrounding that snapshot.

The Election Act rules are for “means other than broadcasting,” covering print media and the Web. On air, most reporters would run out of breath trying to get it all into 30 seconds. It would sound like one of those Viagra ads. But once the story is on the broadcaster’s website, the same rules apply.

I like to clip newspaper reports on polls and have my students give them a grade based on how well they follow the rules. I’ve noticed that over the years, the number of media outlets that receive a passing grade has increased – but there are still some massive fails, including some I’ve read during the current election.

So the next time you read about a poll, try it out yourself: look at the eight points above and give the story a grade out of eight. If it’s a fail, remind the editors that short-changing poll stories is not just bad for democracy, it’s actually illegal.

PS. The recent Fair Elections Act amendments did not affect this section.

Easy peasy!

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The rules as stated in the Act

Elections Canada’s plain English summary