11 July 2011

Forecasting the fall

Pick up a sharpened pencil.

Now take a clean, white sheet of paper from the computer printer.

Close your eyes and make a small round mark on the paper with the pencil.

Look at the black dot.

You can’t real tell much about it, can you?  Unless you knew the story, a person looking at the dot couldn’t even tell you how exactly it got there beyond the fairly obvious point that someone likely made it. If a pencil had been able to roll off a nearby shelf onto the page, for example, you couldn’t even say decisively that a person had made the mark deliberately or accidentally.

So it’s a dot on a piece of paper.  Someone  - apparently - used a pencil because there’s a fairly obvious difference between a pen mark and a pencil mark.

But beyond that, everything about the dot, including its position on the page really only comes from adding some other details. 

For example, you can describe the dot’s position in relation to the edges of the paper.

You can assign a grid system to the paper and say the dot is in one of four quarters or describe its location in relation to one of the corners. But is the corner on the top of the page, the bottom, the left or right?  You can’t tell that because it depends on how you lay the sheet of paper on the table and how you lay it in relation to you.


You have to put the dot and the paper in a context in order to give it meaning.

In politics, the context is sometimes called a frame, as in a picture frame.  Photographs only let you see what was in front of the lens.  They don’t give you the wider context.  You have to supply the context – or frame – as a way to help people see the picture as you think it should be seen. People can take the frame out of their own knowledge or experience or someone can supply the frame.

Now if the frame is factual – here is a black dot on a page – then there isn’t much you can say about it.
But when the frame is gets further and further from fact – like saying that the dot could represent a trend  - you have pretty much entered the world of bullshit.

With that frame in mind, take a gander at a recent CBC story about a potential new Democratic Party surge in the October general election.

One point – the NDP win in St. John’s South-Mount Pearl during the recent federal election  - becomes the possible harbinger of a much larger break through for the NDP.
But the federal election showed that there is great potential for pulling in new support.
For instance, NDP candidates in the metro St. John's area pulled 9,467 votes in the 2007 election.  By contrast, 50,069 people in the same pool of voters backed the NDP in May's federal election.  St. John's East incumbent Jack Harris won his race by a landslide.
You can’t fault the NDP for running with the line they think a breakthrough is possible.  That’s the sort of thing political parties are supposed to say especially running up to an election.  People see where it’s coming from and they can judge the source for themselves.  CBC reports other comments from a New Democratic candidate and from the party’s local president.  Fair ‘nuff.

That bit about the vote result turns up in both the online version and the Here and Now television story.  It’s apparently of CBC information that lends some support to the NDP line.

But it is a completely misleading frame.

Really far from not fair ‘nuff.

For starters, it compares two completely different election results.  One was federal.  One was provincial. That’s a big difference in local politics.  Then there are the many differences in issues and personalities, that is, in the stuff that drives vote choices. 

Then consider that the snippet only gives the NDP result.  It doesn’t tell you what happened with other parties.

The CBC data dot doesn’t tell you about any provincial elections held in the area since 2007.  If they did, CBC would have had to report that Jack Harris scored a huge victory in the 2008 federal election but that he and his team couldn’t translate that into anything at all in a couple of recent provincial by-elections. 

The provincial Tories turned out for their team in a provincial contest, despite voting for Jack Harris federally.

Add more information and the frame in this story doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny, as your humble e-scribbler noted a couple of months ago.

As it is, the fall election is likely to bring a few new twists people haven’t anticipated. Does this story herald other changes outside politics directly? Maybe this story is a one-off.  Maybe it’s a new form of free-time political broadcasting.  Maybe it’s another version of Faux News North in which torque replaces information.

One thing's for sure:  if this is the type of reporting that carries on into the fall, forecasting this fall election could be a lot more entertaining that anyone might have thought a few short weeks ago.

- srbp -