New data show the media really are ignoring the Greens

Posted in Climate Sock, Media on October 25th, 2014 by Leo – 2 Comments

Green supporters often say their party is ignored by the media. The proposal to exclude Natalie Bennett from the leaders’ debates triggered the latest protests, but this is a long-running argument.

In particular, Greens point to the coverage that Ukip get, which they say is much more than the Greens get, and unfairly so.

I’ve never been quite convinced by this. Ukip have at least twice the popular support of the Greens, so it seems natural that they should get more coverage.

But now I’ve measured how much coverage each party gets, I’ve realised I was wrong. Even after factoring in their relative levels of popular support, Ukip get several times more coverage than the Greens.

More coverage than the Greens, and growing

I’ve searched for how many times Ukip and the Green Party were mentioned by UK national newspapers each month since January 2012* – and compared it with the voting intent for both parties in the Ipsos Mori monthly political monitor.

The dominance of Ukip coverage (purple bars), relative to the Greens (green bars) is striking:

What we really want to know, though, is how proportionate the coverage is to each party’s popular support.

Dividing the number of mentions by the parties’ poll ratings gives a sort of conversion score: how many articles they get for each percentage point of popular support they have.

Using this we see that Ukip get far more coverage relative to their support than the Greens do. This chart divides the number of media mentions by each party’s poll score at the time – so if their coverage was proportionate to their support, the lines would be the same height.

It’s interesting to look at this in three distinct phases.

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The climate debate is changing: this is what the next fight will be about

Posted in Climate Sock, Media on February 16th, 2014 by Leo – 2 Comments

Listen carefully and you might hear the climate debate shifting. The floods may not have a dramatic effect on public opinion about climate change, but they have revealed what the next stage of political arguments might look like.

Most of the UK public have long thought that we need to act on climate change. Only about 1 in 7 people think climate change is some kind of hoax; the overwhelming majority think it’s a serious problem, if sometimes a bit exaggerated.

Of course you wouldn’t know that from the media. Particularly since Copenhagen and the UEA email release, much of the media debate about climate change has carried on as if doubt about its reality and severity are widespread. In general, the media haven’t been interested in other kinds of climate stories.

But with the UK floods that may now be changing. The usual denier voices are still given airtime, and they’re still claiming that climate change isn’t real, or isn’t manmade. But now they’re trying their next fallback: if this is climate change, we need to stop wasting money on cutting our emissions and focus on preparing the UK for what’s coming.

Nigel Lawson used it on the Today Programme; Tim Montgomerie, editor of Times Opinion, has been making the same case today:

If the media now lose interest in debates about whether or not climate change is real, this might be the next big fight.

There are at least three parts to the counter-argument:

The UK isn’t irrelevant

We’re accountable for only around 2% of the world’s emissions. If we shut down the country overnight it would have only a small direct effect on climate change. So, it’s argued, there’s no point us busting a gut to reduce our emissions, when what matters is what the most polluting countries do.

But it’s a straw man. No-one’s suggesting we can single-handedly stop dangerous climate change. The point is if global emissions are to be cut, those countries that can afford to cut their emissions need to do so. If the UK wasn’t pledging big emissions reductions, why should the rest of the EU do the same? And if the EU isn’t, how can we hope to persuade China to act?

Which leads to the next argument:

We haven’t failed to reduce emissions

Since 1990, emissions have fallen sharply in the EU: in France by 17%, in Germany by 24%, and in the UK by 29%. US emissions rose over that time, but since 2000 have fallen by 9%.*

China’s emissions are still rising, but even they are probably moving in the right direction. In ’09, out of all the wind power capacity installed globally, 35% was in China – making it the world’s third largest user of wind energy. This may partly be about cutting local pollution from coal plants, but in a world where everyone else is cutting their emissions, it will be hard for China not to follow.

Part of the blame for this perception of failure may lie at the door of climate campaigners. Every time a climate deal is slammed as a failure by an NGO, the impression is strengthened that nothing is being done. And so it becomes a bit easier for critics of all global deals to say we should stop wasting our time with these negotiations and start preparing for the worst.

And so the third, and most neglected part:

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Does anyone outside Westminster care about the Leveson Inquiry?

Posted in Media, Politics on June 17th, 2012 by Leo – Comments Off on Does anyone outside Westminster care about the Leveson Inquiry?

The Leveson Inquiry is increasingly being talked about as a Westminster soap opera, of no interest to the bulk of the country who have better things to do with their time than read (or write) political blogs.

And so Labour’s continued efforts to keep the news focus on Jeremy Hunt have frustrated those who think the party is missing much more valuable opportunities to attack the government on the economy. The former Labour general secretary, Peter Watt, argued that for the vast majority it’s “a hugely embarrassing waste of time and money”.

But public opinion data suggest a more mixed response to Leveson.

Starting with the evidence for the Peter Watt view, it’s clear that neither phone hacking nor more recent revelations from Leveson have ever been the most pressing issue for many people.

In August ’11, after the Milly Dowler story broke, MORI found that only 1% put phone hacking in their list of most important issues facing the country, and revelations about the relationship between the government and News Corp haven’t registered in the index at all. At the end of last year, only 4% said that phone hacking and the Leveson inquiry was the most important news event of 2011.

So the numbers suggest that despite repeated news coverage of the story, the public refuse to see it as a top issue. From this it could be argued that if politicians want to stop being out of touch they need to start talking about something that the country is really worried about.

And yet, I increasingly think it’s more complicated than that. Though not many people think phone hacking and Leveson is one of the biggest issues facing the country, it’s doesn’t seem to be an irrelevance either.

Exhibit A is Google’s search volume index. A comparison of searches for “economy” and “recession” with “phone hacking” and “Leveson” since June ’11 shows that it isn’t the case that the economy has always been of more interest than phone hacking and Leveson. “Leveson” and “phone hacking” have often been searched more than “recession”, and in three one-week periods were searched more than “economy”.

But just because people are interested doesn’t in itself mean that it’s bad for the government. We saw a couple of months ago that more people think that Hunt should resign than said the same for previous ministers who’ve been in trouble, but perhaps this was the product of a general anti-government and anti-politics mood rather than to do with anger about the Leveson findings.

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Does the Evening Standard understand its own Boris vs Ken poll?

Posted in Bad polling, London, Media on April 10th, 2012 by Leo – Comments Off on Does the Evening Standard understand its own Boris vs Ken poll?

I try not to write much about polling methodology. I doubt it’s of interest to many people, and besides, Anthony Wells does it much better than I do.

But there’s been some truly awful reporting today of the latest London mayoral poll, and it’s time to look at weighting and so on.

According to today’s Evening Standard, their new ComRes poll shows “a dramatic slide in Mr Livingstone’s support after his argument with his Tory rival over tax in a radio station lift”.

They go on to say that those “interviewed before “liftgate” last Tuesday morning were split 50/50 between the two candidates. But those surveyed afterwards divided 60/40 in favour of Mr Johnson.” ITV also reported it with the same angle.

This all sounds very plausible and interesting, but it’s in fact a bad misrepresentation of the poll.

The issue is, the poll was never designed to show how opinion changed after shoutyBorisgate. Of course it wasn’t: the poll was set up without anyone knowing there would be any event to compare ‘before’ and ‘after’.

If you do know that an event is coming, say a leaders’ debate, you can run two separate polls, with comparable samples (or even, with the same people), and see how the results compare.

But this ComRes poll doesn’t do that. Instead, a little over three quarters of the poll was conducted before the interview, and the remainder after. Nothing looks to have been done to make sure the samples before and after were comparable.

So we’ve got two groups of people. In terms of how they voted in the last general election (nothing to do with Ken and Boris), the first group has 29% Labour voters and 27% Tory voters. The second group has 26% Labour voters and 32% Tory voters. A Labour 2pt lead vs a Tory 5pt lead.

We then ask them how they’d vote in the London election, and are supposed to be surprised when the group with more Tories say they’re more likely to vote for the Tory candidate!

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Reasons to be wary of media coverage of climate change polls

Posted in Bad polling, Climate Sock, Media on April 4th, 2012 by Leo – Comments Off on Reasons to be wary of media coverage of climate change polls

This post was written for the Green Alliance blog,to coincide with the launch of a paper on public opinion and the environment

Coverage of public opinion on climate change is never just about reporting numbers. Without appreciating the need for journalists to tell a story, we can never really understand why climate change polls are reported as they are.

Over the last decade, two distinct narratives have been told about what the public think of climate change. Each of these narratives has been so dominant for a time that it has been difficult for alternative views of public opinion to get much attention.

The first, which dominated for most of the noughties, was that climate change was increasingly settled in the public’s minds as a great concern. Polls on climate change were rare for much of the decade, but when they did appear in the media, the coverage tended to acknowledge that the public was worried, although perhaps unsure about the risks or about possible solutions, as in this Observer article.

As a result, there was little prominent dissent from the view that climate change was becoming a more important issue for most people, along with a belief that the world needed to take decisive action.

The rise of scepticism

But by the end of 2009, this prevailing narrative about public views on climate change had given way to a very different account.

It happened quite suddenly, around the time of the COP15 in Copenhagen. Now, the dominant frame was that growing numbers of people doubted the existence of serious man-made climate change, and that there was increased resistance to measures to tackle it.

Opinion polls were important to the development of this new account. For about a year, from late 2009, polls were repeatedly used to show the same narrative: that fewer people were now worried about climate change.

The sheer weight of polls, reported across the media, gave the overwhelming impression of an ongoing change in opinion. But this was misleading: in fact, there appears to have been a one-off fall in concern about climate change, which happened between November’09 and January ’10.

The difficulty in understanding opinion lies in the fact that media outlets want to report their own polls, as an exclusive story. They’re much less interested in repeating polls that another newspaper or broadcaster have commissioned.

So over a period of several months, we saw different polls in outlets from the Daily Mail to the BBC and Guardian, which essentially restated the same phenomenon as if it were a new finding. The result was a powerful new narrative, that concern about climate change was experiencing an ongoing decline.

There are two reasons why it’s useful to see this as a new dominant narrative about public opinion, rather than as straight-forward reporting of opinion.

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Closing a London landmark and other ways to lose supporters

Posted in Media, Protests on October 27th, 2011 by Leo – 4 Comments

A week ago the Occupy London protesters at St Paul’s Cathedral had a strong level of public support.

Even just after the Cathedral closed its doors, ICM found a majority agreeing with the protesters’ demands:

This seems impressively high. Only two in five saying that there is no practical alternative to capitalism is certainly at odds with the dominant view in the media.

But this isn’t the same as finding support for the way the protest is unfolding, and opinion may well have changed since the poll was conducted.

The day after the fieldwork, the Telegraph was the first to run with the claim that nine in ten of the tents are empty overnight. Along with repeated stories of ordinary people’s lives being disrupted, the coverage has also targeted the supposed wealth of some of the protesters to suggest that they’re out of touch or hypocritical.

The thing is, this was all utterly predictable. After one day of most protests there will always be some bad headlines for the protesters, but barring disaster there’ll also be some positive ones. But after several days of protest, the fact that there’s a protest will no longer generate news: only the chaos will be of interest.

After the coverage of the UK Uncut occupation of Fortnum and Mason, and the most recent Climate Camp, there should have been nothing surprising in the protests receiving this kind of negative coverage, especially if they went on for several days.

The Fortnum and Mason protest also indicates the impact this can have on opinion.

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One poll, two stories

Posted in Climate Sock, Media on May 14th, 2011 by leo – 8 Comments

Climate change ‘more important than immigration’

Climate change should be a higher priority for the government than immigration, according to findings of a new poll revealed exclusively in Climate Sock. The results will delight environmental campaigners, who have long been calling for climate change to be taken more seriously as a political issue.

According to the poll, 46% more people think that climate change is an important issue in their life than say the same about immigration or asylum. The results will put pressure on the government, which was criticised last week by environmental leaders, who said it was failing to live up to its pledge to be the “greenest government ever”.

The findings will also put an end to doubts about the public’s trust in the work of climate scientists. Following the 2009 hacking and release online of emails from the world-leading Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, there was widespread speculation that public opinion was increasingly turning against the view that climate change was caused by human activity.

Any doubts now appear to have been overcome, with three in four of those surveyed by Ipsos MORI saying that they think human activity has a significant effect on the climate.

Welcoming the results, Eddard Stark, head of the environmental charity Climate Campaigners, said “The government can no longer hide behind the myth that the public have higher priorities. These results send a clear message: the country wants action to stop climate change, and it wants it now”.


Global warming? Bring it on!


Brits are looking forward to the effects of global warming, according to findings of a new poll revealed exclusively in Climate Sock. The results will delight observers who have long argued that environmental pressure groups routinely exaggerate the negative side of climate change.

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On rigging and reporting polls

Posted in Bad polling, Climate Sock, Media on April 4th, 2011 by leo – 3 Comments

Consider this plausible scenario. An airline’s new poll finds that most people want airport capacity to be increased. Two weeks later an environmental NGO announces that their own poll has found two-thirds oppose airport expansion.

Both polls are conducted by reputable agencies, and both interviewed representative samples of over 1,000 people.

How can we reconcile these two polls, and how should journalists report them?

It’s not a problem with polling

The problem is not that polling is inherently untrustworthy. Conducting a poll of 1,000 randomly chosen people means speaking to about 0.002% of the UK adult population. Yet the results are so reliable that, 19 times out of 20, the result you get will be within 3 percentage points of the result you would get if you asked every single person in the country. UK Polling Report offer a good explanation for why this is the case.

Alternatively, if wading through probabilities isn’t your thing, just consider YouGov’s five most recent political polls. For each, they interviewed over 2,000 different people; the proportion who said they would vote Labour were, respectively, 44%, 42%, 45%, 42%, 42%.

If polling itself is untrustworthy, the consistency in these results would require either quite a coincidence or a grand conspiracy. And for anyone tempted to call it a fix, just remember the outraged reaction when, after the second leaders’ debate last year, YouGov’s instant poll found that Cameron ‘won’. It would be a twisted conspiracy indeed if YouGov rigged polls for the Tories last year, and are now doing so in favour of Labour.

So the problem is not that polling is inherently untrustworthy. The problem is this:

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What do we do when two good polls say opposite things?

Posted in Climate Sock, Climategate, Media on January 31st, 2011 by leo – 5 Comments

Crikey.  You wait months for fresh data and then two big ones come at once.  And such is life, they say pretty much opposite things. I’ll get to some proper analysis later, but just for now some first thoughts.

Firstly, about the polls. There’s one in the Guardian that apparently shows concern about climate change to be at the same level now as it was in August ’09, i.e. before the UEA emails, the cold winters, Copenhagen, and the relentless stories about how no-one believes in climate change any more.

Then, there’s one in the Mail – which is actually reporting ONS data from August last year – that shows that agreement with climate science is lower now than it’s been at any point since ’06 (when the figures begin).

So, my reactions:

This isn’t a case of the Guardian being climate warriors and the Mail being climate deniers

As far as I can see, both are reporting the data accurately. There’s no apparent cherry picking, and it looks like the comparisons with previous polls are fair. The Guardian’s reporting stands out for linking directly to both data sets, which I don’t remember ever seeing before – round of applause for Damian Carrington – but the Mail’s doesn’t say anything that I don’t think is justifiable (though it took quite a while to find the data – any reason they couldn’t link to it?).

The questions are different and may not be measuring the same phenomenon

I’ve been saying for a while that the decrease in people saying they’re absolutely convinced that the climate is changing/that global warming is a very big problem may be a factor of the way the ‘debate’ between climate warriors and deniers is being conducted. It’s become so vitriolic that many people are heading for the middle ground, on the assumption that both sides are partly right (or because they’re just sick of it).

So a question like ONS’s, whose answer choices are “very convinced/fairly convinced/not very convinced/not at all convinced/don’t know” would tend to lose people from the extremes of the scale to the middle (as happens to an extent: 45% in ’06 to 41% now).

In contrast, the Guardian’s question was on a discrete scale and didn’t present the contrast between firm opinion vs middle ground (climate change already a threat / will be a threat in the future / not a threat / don’t know). Maybe as a result, there’s less of an effect from the way the debate is being conducted and reported.

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More bad poll reporting… even when it’s in the name of the forests

Posted in Bad polling, Climate Sock, Media on January 24th, 2011 by leo – 1 Comment

I like:

  • Trees. Particularly when they’re part of forests.
  • People being able to get into forests with as few restrictions as possible.
  • People’s views being taken into account when government policy is formed.

Because of that, I’m a bit sad about what I’m about to write.

If you’re in the UK, there’s a good chance you’ve seen or heard coverage of 38 Degrees’ poll, which apparently showed that 75% of the public are against the government’s plans to privatise some forests and change the way it manages the rest. It’s had coverage pretty much everywhere, from the bleeding hearts at the Guardian and BBC to those bastions of anti-green activism at the Sun and Telegraph.

So being a nerd, the first thing I did when I heard the news was to look for the data. And this was when I started getting sad.

1. The data weren’t published when the articles were written

To my knowledge, all the coverage was put together on the basis of what 38 Degrees gave to the media (the data were put up on the YouGov site today, Monday, with the coverage posted on Saturday or Sunday).

We’ve seen several times before why this matters. If journalists cover a poll without seeing the data, they’re often reliant entirely on the word of people who are trying to promote their own interest.

In November, we saw an EDF poll that won coverage of apparent strong support for a new nuclear power station, on the basis of a question that came after respondents had been reminded of the jobs a power station could create.

And we’ve seen other polls reported with absolutely no data ever published, like the claim made in an Easyjet press release last year that a YouGov poll showed that 80% of UK consumers wanted a rethink of Air Passenger Duty. Without the data being available, there’s no way of knowing whether it was true.

Now, this isn’t particular to 38 Degrees: everyone does it. After all, when you’ve got a shiny new poll fresh from the pollsters, why not get coverage for it straight away?  And of course if you’re a journalist and you know that competitors have also got the same story, you’ve got to cover it straight away.

But here’s another reason why that’s a bad idea:

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