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Apr 05

The Explainer: Media razzle-dazzle

That was from the musical “Chicago,” where Renee Zellwegger gets some tips from Richard Gere on how to charm the public with some razzmatazz and razzle-dazzle. Today, the final leg of the national gets in gear and much of it will revolve around you, the viewer, as spectator: in particular, as a media consumer. Everyone is dying to know what you think, because what you think can make or break the candidates. And how do the pros claim to know how you think? By means of those regular snapshots of your opinion known as the surveys. Tonight, we’ll take a look at some interesting insights into what makes you tick –according to the surveys themselves.

 

I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.

 

I.

 

This is one of the most famous news photos of all time: Harry Truman, running for reelection, joyfully showing the Chicago Tribune headline that reported the opposite of what happened: instead of Dewey defeating Truman, it was the other way around in one of the biggest political upsets in American presidential politics. This headline became a debating point between former senator Francisco Tatad and my Inquirer colleague, John Nery.

Kit Tatad, as a candidate, objects to surveys because he thinks theyre done badly and mislead the public. Not just here at home, but elsewhere and not just now, but going back in time. Here in his letter to Nery, he pointed out the Chicago Tribune boo-boo was made possible by the pollsters of the time –Gallup, Crossley and Roper- making the wrong prediction.

Not quite the case, responded Nery in his column. He says the pollsters had stopped polling because they did think Dewey had it in the bag. But the headline itself came out wrong because of something unrelated to surveys. Nery pointed out it was because there was a strike. The paper had to go to press earlier than usual. And because its Washington correspondent had the wrong hunch.

And this points to a very human need: we want to know not only what’s happening, we all love to gaze into crystal balls. Is that what surveys are? At best they can only give us a snapshot –a frozen moment in time, based on a representative sample of the population. We take surveys all the time: we ask people what they think. In politics, it’s useful to know what a lot of people are thinking. This is public opinion, and our media has been trying to figure it out since 1933, when the Philippines Free Press pioneered mail-in questionnaires to its readers. The question: do you support or reject the Hare-Hawes-Cutting Act? The mail-in survey reflected public opinion as it played out in elections that year: the public was overwhelmingly Anti.

In 1938-39 as the proposals to amend the 1935 Constitution kicked off, the Philippines Free Press again engaged in mail-in surveys to ask its readers what they thought. At the time, the surveys showed support for a national senate and for creating the Comelec, but unease over changing the presidential term from six years to four years with reelection –the unattractive lady in this editorial cartoon. As a snapshot of public opinion, this proved useful to the advocates of amendments who managed to carry through the amendments by 1940.

Fast forward to the 1960s and public opinion polling had made quantum leaps in scope and methods. This was a time when the political landscape had already shifted from the old machines led by wrinkled old veterans. Instead, a more media-savvy, populist politics had taken root. It had been heralded by Magsaysay’s election in 1953 and the election of movie idol Rogelio de la Rosa to the Senate four years later. Followed by his abortive but spectacular run for the presidency in 1961. In 1963, it seemed he’d make it to the Senate again.

That election year, as Nick Joaquin wrote in his article, “Ayos na ang Buto-Buto,” the polling firms became news for the reasons Tatad objects to surveys today: they predicted who’d make it to the Senate and those tagged as losers screamed bloody murder. Not least because one survey firm got it badly wrong.

Still, public opinion polling has become part of the toolkit of modern governance. Going into the midterm elections, President Ramos commissioned a survey with perhaps the biggest respondent base ever, many times over the usual samples used. It was a secret survey, to take the public pulse on what were winning issues and with the information from it, he used the survey to help propel his party to a sweeping win.

More recently, presidential candidate Joseph Ejercito Estrada has shifted from pooh-poohing the surveys to chuckling that it’s better to start slow and go upwards as the campaign goes on. The fact of the matter is, the surveys matter to all the presidential candidates. Each survey that comes out from the reputable firms, gives an insight into what is working and what’s failing in their campaign.

Even the administration, which publicly dismisses surveys because they reveal its unpopularity, has been an enthusiastic commissioner of surveys. It even had its own in-house survey supremo, who’d once been a top honcho in SWS. The dramatic turns in other candidates’ fortunes can also be tracked in terms of whether the surveys show them moving upward or downward as the surveys take place month after month and week after week. The moment a survey comes out, political operators start planning how to react by means of the mass media.

Several years ago, the Institute of Philippine Culture of the Ateneo de Manila had already done focus groups with poor voters, which showed that for them, media was already the top source of influence in voting decision.

Which brings us to the heart of tonight’s program. The Manila Standard Today newspaper has been doing regular polling throughout the campaign period, and besides the candidates’ numbers, it asks many interesting questions. Let’s take a look at this question: what is the most helpful means in deciding whom to vote for? In terms of national elective positions. Taken as a whole, they show mass media’s king. Nearly half say it’s news on TV. Almost as many say it’s ads or commercials. The third, with 38 percent, says news that someone’s visited your area. Ask  yourself: does this mean you saw the candidate, or heard the candidate dropped by? And also, how did you hear about it? Chances are, from media. A third are influenced by debates and less than a quarter by news in the papers.

But the devil’s in the details as they say. If nearly half said they’re influenced by news in media on the candidates, what then, are the top sources of news? Take a look. Where do people get their trusted sources of news? 83 percent says TV. Less than ten percent says radio, only 2 percent say the papers.

But here’s the clincher, folks. What then, are the top trusted sources of news? Two out of three won’t surprise you: our very own TV Patrol, and its rival, 24 Oras. But look at the third top trusted source of news: Wowowee. The question then becomes: is one citizen’s definition of a news source, very different from that of others? The can apply to radio, where Bombo Radyo and DZRH find themselves as trusted news sources together with Love Radio on FM; or in the broadsheets, where the Inquirer and Manila Bulletin are in the company of the tabloid, Bulgar.

These insights may be fresh, but the trends they point to have been developing for some time now: ever since our laws liberalized political ad placements in media. Ricky Carandang, our colleague in ANC, got this data from Nielsen Media Index: in 2004, the leading candidates all racked up ad minutes on TV measuring in the hundreds of minutes.

The Pera’t Pulitika civil society consortium has been measuring advertising since the political season kicked off, and discovered enormous investments by the candidates in ads: with one candidate spending almost as much as all the rest combined from November 2009 to February this year.

As the surveys are done, so is the marketing of a candidate done: targeted to attract socio economic groups. One candidate for example, if you analyzed his ads, targeted the biggest sectors, classes D and E, and ensured everyone would see an ad at least one a day, and over 99 percent would see it twice and three times a day.

The spending of candidates on ads has only been limited by legal limits on ad minutes ever since the campaign period formally began. Though a big campaign kitty can still make a crucial difference.

And again, all targeted as these January figures show, to reach the maximum number of voters most effectively.

The Manila Standard Today survey will be mined for insights for a long time to come, as people try to figure out how the 2010 elections turned out. Among its insights are precisely the answers to the questions Pera’t Pulitika will want to ask: how effect were those tens of millions of pesos in ad spending? How many were reached? Convinced?

Even things like the slogans you hear several times a day: the survey asks people how many like them, dislike them, or aren’t sure; though obviously they wouldn’t have become the slogans unless they’d already been seen to resonate with the public.

Still, when we return, let’s focus on the media, the news, and you: we’ll ask our guest to peek at the trusted news sources according to public opinion, and what it says about us as voters.

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