A Toronto Star story on a recent poll shows a slim majority of GTA residents reject the various taxes, fees and levies proposed to pay for the Big Move, the plan for long-term transit expansion.

No doubt there is value in a pollster asking the question, and absolutely it deserves to be covered as a story, but I honestly can’t completely trust a poll that isn’t more transparent. As a reader, I’m given the sample size, the geographic spread of the respondents and the date of the poll, but not the questions (A similar poll in late March by the same pollster generated similar results). The details of the poll are not available to the public.

Why do I consider this important?

This was an “interactive voice response telephone poll”, or IVR, which means respondents aren’t talking to a human, but a pre-recorded voice that asks them to push a button to indicate their response to specific prompts. Without knowing what exactly was asked and how the issues are defined to the respondent, it’s easy to imagine that respondents can be guided into a certain kind of response or perception.

Image: Megasat.de

IVR polls favour simple questions; it’s not the ideal method to capture opinions on complex public policy issues – such as various types of taxes and fees on everything from road use to property development to payrolls.

This is where the journalist’s job comes in. Without having the poll script dropped into the story, it is the journalist’s job to ensure the poll is not misrepresenting public opinion or not skewing opinion by presenting subjective or leading information to the respondents.

I’m not saying I don’t believe the results of the poll. And I have absolutely no reason to doubt the professionalism of Forum Research, the company that conducted the poll. But consider this: we’ve been bombarded for years with messages that tell us that taxes are bad, so it’s not hard to imagine that a robocall from a pollster asking if you want to pay more taxes for transit generates an automatic negative response.

A poll can be a quick and easy story to do, with results that make for tasty headlines. Consumers of news media should be confident that they are getting fully transparent and objective coverage of opinion polls.

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I hate the word “taxpayer”. Why? Because it puts the word tax front and center, as if our identity revolves around the fact that we pay tax – as opposed to, say, the fact that we consume public services like health care, pensions, roads, utilities, etc.

The discussion over how to fund the needed transit expansion for the GTA has me overjoyed for a variety of reasons. First, we’re having a discussion about transit. Second, it’s participatory; the discussion is relatively broad and it includes various levels of government, business and citizens’ groups.

And finally, it appears we are having an adult discussion about taxes. Although the vague phrase “revenue tools” has been used frequently,  I think that most people understand we are talking about taxes, full stop. Even if we’re all clear on what “revenue tools” means, I wish Premier Wynne and Metrolinx would stop using it.

Express Tax Route? (Image: Globe & Mail)

Road tolls are a tax. Parking fees are a tax. The other oft-mentioned solutions are dedicated sales and fuel taxes – which are both, of course, taxes.

What I like about this – no, what I love about this – is that citizens are being treated with respect and honesty. You want good transit? We need to raise money to pay for it, through taxes.  So, let’s talk about which taxes we can pay to get something that will increase the quality of life in the GTA.

I realize not everyone shares my enthusiasm, but I rejoice in the fact that all citizens – whether they want better transit or not – are clear in what they are debating. Isn’t transparency a great thing?

UPDATE: No, this is not an April Fool’s joke. Seriously.

I digested the media coverage of the Richard Kachkar’s sentencing with a bad taste in my mouth. Yesterday, he was found not criminally responsible for killing Toronto Police Sgt. Ryan Russell; a result that can hardly be considered surprising for those who have been paying attention to the trial.

Yet, quite a bit of the media coverage focused more on the victims’ emotional response (“no closure”, “no justice”, “Sgt. Russell deserved better”), than on explaining the practical implications of Kachkar being found not criminally responsible. While in no way wanting to deny the obvious pain Kachkar caused Russell’s family, I was hoping for media coverage that would balance the tragic perspective with some objective facts that would explain how, far from walking free, Kachkar will undoubtedly be treated by professionals in a secure psychiatric facility under the close supervision of the Ontario Review Board, and could – depending on his treatment and progress – remain in custody for quite a few years. The Board will review his status every year, and this process will determine whether he gets out and under what conditions. And, importantly, public safety is the primary consideration for the Board in determining whether people like Kachkar get released.

Ok, so this wasn’t given equal play in media coverage. So what?

I think this is important because the media coverage is enabling and shaping public perception of public safety issues and how governments respond. Specifically – and bluntly – unbalanced and superficial media coverage of public safety issues enables unbalanced and superficial public safety policy. When we get media coverage of crime that is all about victims, then the laws will reflect that.

Here’s an example of how this works: After Kachkar’s verdict was announced, Ryan’s widow Christine scrummed outside of the courthouse and made a point of mentioning her support for the Not Criminally Responsible Reform Act, a classic Stephen Harper piece of legislation that purports to “make our streets and communities safer,” and “ensures that not criminally responsible accused people found to be too dangerous to release are no longer a threat to their victims or Canadian communities.” In fact, it is another pointless and unhelpful bill that changes little, will impact only a handful of people and will not stop this type of tragedy from happening again. However, it will reinforce the idea that our streets are filled with danger (Stephen Harper is building new prisons while crime rates are currently at a 40-year low) and that the mentally ill are merely criminals with convenient excuses. Don’t forget that fear, ignorance and political expediency drive  Harper’s correction policy; not expert research or facts.

Less crime, more fear (Image: Canada.com)

Does this approach to public policy remind you of anything? Climate change policy? Ignoring and muzzling scientists?

I regret that people feel the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. I regret that people feel that correctional policy should be built around the idea that even the mentally ill must suffer in proportion to the terrible crimes they sometime commit.

But the truth is that the process is generally fair and objective – and that is how the justice system should be. Not vengeful and emotional. Media coverage should make sure people understand that.

Radio Ford Nation (Image: National Post)

One of the first rules elected officials learn – if they don’t already know – is to not comment on any case before a court. But Rob Ford didn’t get that memo. Or he didn’t listen to the briefing. Or maybe he was driving and reading at the time. Because he called into a CFRB talk show yesterday and offered his unsolicited opinion on what should happen to Richard Kachkar, who is awaiting sentencing for killing a Toronto Police officer with a stolen snowplow. The jury is weighing whether Kachkar is criminally responsible for his actions.

Ford’s on-air comments – which are not worth repeating or even summarizing – were typical of his lack of understanding of complex issues. By the way, Ford was the only person sufficiently motivated to call in to the programme.

Is our mayor so clueless that he thinks it’s OK to make public comments on an ongoing criminal trial? Does he think that his connection with Toronto’s citizens is so strong and all-consuming that he can ignore one of the most fundamental rules of behaviour for public office-holders? Does he have any impulse control? Is there anyone who can control Ford’s outbursts?

These are questions shouted into wind. Clearly, there’s not much that can be done about our mayor. However, CFRB should think about what they can do to stop providing an open platform for Ford whenever he wants to open his mouth. I’m sure the station loves that it’s become the official voice of Ford Nation, but they should remind themselves that they have journalistic responsibilities.

If the journalists at CFRB want an example of a more robust interview with the mayor of a large city, then they should check this out.

Meanwhile – speaking of excellence in journalism – I’m going back to watching the continuing coverage of the Pandas.

So you like to stay informed on topics that matter to you. You are an active and informed citizen; you always vote and enjoy discussing issues with your friends and family. But maybe you’ve been noticing lately that – with a few exceptions – most news media are no longer providing the quality of coverage that you expect.  Stories are shorter, more homogenous, poorly researched and lacking context.  You are sick of sports, weather and traffic and you find yourself regularly yelling at the TV.

What’s a news consumer to do?

You stop consuming news, is what you do.

This is the conclusion from a study done by the Pew Research Center in the U.S. that looked at the reduction in staffing at media outlets and the consequences for news consumers (the study only covered the U.S., but the same trends are felt here in Canada).  A more visual summary of the study can be found here.

https://i2.wp.com/www.maples.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/empty-newsroom_mk_21.jpgOne of the study’s most alarming findings is how the decline in quality news coverage is affecting public awareness and debate on public policy and issues. If a newsroom can’t afford to examine or question the pronouncements of politicians, corporations and interest groups, then news consumers will not get any value from the news they consume and instead just go directly to the source. Those who are abandoning media outlets are the typical heavy news consumers: more educated, more affluent and more involved – the type of people that form a part of the foundation of public debate and engagement.  The result? Our public discourse is further impoverished. This ties back to my last post, which discussed the critical role public broadcasters can play in informing and engaging the public.

Some suggest that this view is just wrong; there has never been more content available to consumers and it has never been easier to access. I’m not sure if I share this opinion – for me the key question is whether I can get objective news on stories that are important to me from a source I trust, and not from opinionated blogs like this one.

Interestingly, the report suggests the news media have been poor at explaining newsroom budget cuts to their customers, and at linking those cuts to the quality and quantity of news. The study concludes that even those consumers who understand that newsroom cuts lead to poor news coverage are fleeing the ship. I would bet they mostly flee to alternative information sources that reflect their opinions back at them. Or, they are getting more information directly from organizations and corporations through social media.

Have newsrooms missed the story?  Have they forgotten to communicate some basic context to their audience?

Yes, they have. But it would seem as the worst type of self-indulgence – and I say this as a former journalist – to tell your audience that your budget got cut and now you have to close some foreign bureaus and rely more on wire copy.

As a news consumer, would you appreciate that?

Please stand by.

I’m a strong supporter of public broadcasting. If done right, and adequately funded, public broadcasting can inform, engage and reflect a country back to its citizens.

Without having to worry primarily about ratings – and therefore revenue – public broadcasters are focused on their mandate to offer programming in the public interest. The CBC’s mandate, for example, says that it should “provide radio and television services incorporating a wide range of programming that informs, enlightens and entertains.” Its programming should, among other things, “contribute to shared national consciousness and identity… be predominantly and distinctively Canadian, reflect Canada and its regions to national and regional audiences, while serving the special needs of those regions… and, actively contribute to the flow and exchange of cultural expression.”

There is no doubt that better-informed citizens make better-informed decisions about everything from public policy and voting to financial and lifestyle choices. Good public broadcasting helps both citizens and the rest of the news media to hold governments to account. You only have to look south of border to see the impact a weak public broadcaster has on the quality of public knowledge and political debate.

So I was quite interested in a recent article in the Globe and Mail about a study done to measure citizens’ knowledge of current affairs in six countries with strong public broadcasters. Canada, despite what you may think about the CBC, is one of the six countries. The study’s general finding is that public broadcasters have a positive impact on public knowledge.

Here’s another finding from the study cited in the article: “Canada sits somewhere in the middle range. Citizens who rely on the CBC for news score only marginally better on current-affairs indicators. The bang for your (public broadcasting) buck is much better in the U.K., Japan, and Norway. Not coincidentally, in these countries the levels of funding and independence from government are much stronger.”

So we can expect the Harper government – which prefers Canadians fearful and ignorant – to continue to cut funding to the CBC. The result will likely be the continued erosion in quality journalism and programming (overdone news coverage of the new pope, the cringeworthy Jack Layton biopic and the continuing presence of Don Cherry and Kevin O’Leary being a few examples) at the public broadcaster, particularly for English TV. Well, at least we have CBC radio. I should also single out TVO for the quality of its current affairs programming.

The next post will further explore what happens when news consumers don’t like what’s on offer – from public or private broadcasters.

The wind energy sector was abuzz earlier this week, with news of a new study that sheds some light into the thorny issue of how humans perceive the health impact of wind turbines.  The study suggests that people who claim to suffer health problems from living near turbines could actually be suffering from a psychogenic response, prompted by anti-wind farm campaigns – or, to put it less delicately, scaremongering – that say that noise and vibration from wind turbines cause health problems.

More specifically, the study finds that the vast majority of those who live near wind farms in Australia suffer no related health problems (frequently cited complaints like sleeplessness, headaches, and stress  are grouped into “wind turbine syndrome”) and that those who do claim adverse impacts mostly live near five specific wind farms that have been targeted by anti-wind campaigns.

Feeling sick already? (Image: London Free Press)

The study comes from Dr. Simon Chapman, a public health professor at the University of Sydney. Dr. Chapman has been questioning the “science” used by anti-wind groups, and looking at the issue from a risk communications angle. Chapman calls wind turbine syndrome a “communicated disease”.

His study, the conclusions of which imply that this is an area worthy of further work, sets out the case that communications – through such activities as media and public information campaigns – could be one of the strongest determinants of how humans perceive wind turbines and their impact on health and quality of life. Thus far, the scientific work done on the topic continues to find no link between wind turbines and adverse health impacts.

Given the opposition to wind farms in Ontario, the study should be very relevant to the debate here. For wind energy advocates, this study promises an interesting new direction in the challenge to better understand and manage the interaction between wind turbines and humans and to build a fact-based regulatory approach. It also supports the need for the wind energy industry to be more communicative and transparent about the annoyance issues associated with wind turbines.

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Image: cbc.ca

I have yet to read, hear or see any reasonable justification of why I am subject to a barrage of news coverage on the new pope.

Of particular concern to me is the CBC, and the National (full disclosure: I worked for the National for several years as a writer), which has sent Peter Mansbridge to Rome. Why is the CBC spending newsgathering money hosting the top of the show from the Vatican? I can see the private broadcasters decamping to Rome, but this reflexive blanket coverage – “CBC News was first on the scene with coverage of this historical event!” – has no place at the public broadcaster. At the very least, host it from Toronto and save your limited budget for a real news event.

Breathless accounts of the conclave, the machinations of backroom negotiations and the devout assembled at Vatican are not relevant to me as a viewer. I could not care at all whether the guy from Quebec threw his support to the South American delegation. I am not remotely interested in vague speculation on whether the new pope will suddenly transform the Catholic Church into a service organization for the world’s poor. The media village at the Vatican? Not a story.

Tell me why the new pope is important to me. Tell me why it should matter to me. Tell me what you know about the new pope or what he will do that is relevant or different from past popes – without speculating. If not, please move on and get to some real news.

Copenhagen metro: no driver, happy riders (Image: Pacsafe.com)

I used to travel a lot to Copenhagen. From the airport, you can take the metro to the city centre in about 15 minutes. The trains are fully automated; there are no drivers or similar staff. The trains run very well, and the system is efficient and safe. It’s called Automatic Train Control, and it helps to provide more frequent and reliable service in public transit systems in Barcelona, London, Paris, Washington, Hong Kong and Singapore – just to name a few.

So when I saw a newspaper story about how the TTC is moving toward this more automated approach, I thought it was an encouraging sign of progress. That was until I read a quote from Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113 leader Bob Kinnear (who represents TTC workers and in October was acclaimed to his fourth term). He said, “I have almost no concern that the TTC would to a fully automated system, cause I do not believe that the general public, never mind the pushback they’ll get from us, I do not believe that the public in Toronto would accept that.” The union will even oppose reducing the current two-man crews on each subway train.

Two bits of advice, Mr. Kinnear: First, don’t pretend you speak for transit riders. It’s quite clear by now that the average level of customer service provided by your members – mostly unfriendly, uncommunicative and generally resentful for having to deal with riders – is not acceptable to riders.  Second, if your union is so interested in being a credible and active advocate for transit in Toronto, then what kind of message does it send when your first response to a reasonable proposal is not to engage it, but to dismiss it?

Why does he make me think that he will fight against every suggestion that would make the TTC more efficient or more customer-friendly? Most certainly, he’s talking to his membership through the media – but that’s just union politics. He could have the union participate in public transit policy discussions, but maybe that’s too long-term for him. After all, he is an elected official accountable only to ATU members. I get the impression that the Kinnear is not too interested in improving transit or even transit policy. He’s only interested in his members’ jobs – right now.

That’s too bad, because the nature and number – and the future security – of those jobs is being shaped by debates about new transit technologies, new fare systems, new equipment, new approaches to transit and myriad other issues that will be with us much longer than this news cycle.

All this reminds me of last autumn’s Protecting What Matters campaign from ATU Local 113. Remember those transit ads profiling TTC maintenance workers? Or the slick video that played before movies? The campaign – which clearly wasn’t cheap – was meant to remind all of us about how ATU workers keep transit moving and convince City Hall and us that privatizing public transit is the wrong path.

The point, I admit, was lost on me. Ok, so your union members maintain buses, streetcars and subways? So what? I’m more interested in what the union thinks is the most sustainable approach to transit in Toronto.  If I were a union member, I would be asking what was that campaign meant to achieve? And was the goal achieved?

That money would have been better spent on promoting and sharing the voices and ideas of the people who know the TTC best – its employees – and being more actively involved in the bigger debates on public transit. That, to me, is a more practical and effective communications approach and a better way for the union to push for a future that will secure long-term jobs for its members.

I hope the members of the union think about how their president represents them in debates on transit. They should aim higher: to be seen as a modern, flexible and informed group of workers who care about public transit and where it’s going, if only because their jobs are on the line.

I’m not particularly surprised that Rob Ford is being accused of groping Sarah Thomson. He is not exactly the living embodiment of a modern, tolerant man.

Sadly, I’m also not surprised that Ford responded in the way he did: by attacking Thomson’s credibility and suggesting she’s crazy. Specifically, he said, “I’ve always said, I don’t know if she’s playing with a full deck from the first time I met her, and I told her that that night.” Things then got a lot weirder when Thomson mused on a radio show that she thought Ford was on cocaine when said alleged groping occurred. That’s when I decided to tune out of this story – except to make the observations below.

I have no idea whether Ford pawed Sarah Thomson or not – both of them, in an odd way, deserve each other. But what I do know is that a great many people will believe anything bad they hear about Rob Ford because it fits perfectly within the range of behaviour we expect from him. And that should inform how he responds to these types of accusations.

Is anyone giving Rob Ford decent communications advice? Is anyone telling him to stop giving just about everyone – outside of Ford Nation – the impression that he’s a boorish, unthinking man-child who can’t resist insulting those who don’t agree with him?

It’s quite possible that there is someone like that on his staff – but that Ford refuses to listen to the advice. Or perhaps his responses are highly strategic, designed as a call to action for his supporters? In either case, I despair.

Meanwhile, like a lot of other Torontonians, I await the emergence of a self-aware and tactful candidate for mayor.