Polls, Questions and Minimum Standards

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As additional information becomes known, an allegedly impartial poll about Cincinnati's streetcar project touted by The Enquirer becomes more suspect. A person who took the poll says the questions seemed like “propaganda,” while the pollster violated the accepted standards of the polling industry.—-

CityBeat was contacted by a woman who was called to participate in the poll. Although she asked that her name not be used, she is a 58-year-old, recently retired credit union manager who lives in College Hill.

The woman said the poll included many more questions than those listed in a recent Enquirer blog item, and also asked about her opinions on various politicians.

“There were a lot of questions. It lasted at least 15 minutes, maybe longer,” she said. “I usually don't respond to those sort of things but when I was told it would be about the streetcar, I wanted my point of view included.”

One of the politicians she was asked about was Cincinnati City Councilman Chris Bortz, a prominent streetcar supporter. After she told the pollster that she had a favorable view of Bortz, the caller asked more questions about him including, “Would your opinion change if you knew he would personally profit from the streetcar project?”

“They were asking pretty pointed questions about him,” she said.

Bortz works for his father’s firm, Towne Properties, which develops and manages residential and commercial real estate projects citywide. Streetcar supporters have publicized the project’s economic spin-off effect, alleging it can spark redevelopment and increase property values within a three-block radius, as one of its benefits. But one independent analysis concluded Towne owned only three parcels near the route.

One of the groups involved in a petition process to get a proposed charter amendment on the November ballot that might block streetcar funding is the NAACP's local chapter. Its president is Christopher Smitherman, who regularly uses his weekly radio show and a public access show on cable TV to criticize Bortz and the project.

Attorney Chris Finney, who was hired as the local NAACP's legal counsel, provided the poll to The Enquirer but claimed he didn't know who commissioned it.

The woman interviewed by CityBeat couldn't recall all of the politicians she was questioned about but did remember Gov. John Kasich and Congressman Steve Chabot, both Republicans, were included.

Also, some of the questions asked about alleged problems with the streetcar project.

“It didn't seem to me that it was a poll. It seemed to me like propaganda,” she said. “It really felt like they were pursuing their own agenda.”

When the woman asked whether the caller was trying to persuade people to dislike Bortz and who paid for the poll, the caller replied, “I can't answer that.”

A city feasibility study concluded the streetcar system would spark redevelopment of vacant and underused properties near the route and have a $1.4 billion economic impact if built. Or as Mayor Mark Mallory recently noted, the city should get $3 back for every $1 invested.

Meanwhile, Columbus-based pollster Paul Fallon, who conducted the telephone survey, wouldn't divulge who his clients were for The Enquirer or CityBeat, or provide a full list of questions and cross-tabulations. That action violates polling disclosure standards, industry experts said.

In its Code of Professional Ethics & Practice, the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) established Standards for Minimal Disclosure.

The standards include revealing “who sponsored the research study, who conducted it, and who funded it, including, to the extent known, all original funding sources,” along with “the exact wording and presentation of questions and responses whose results are reported.”

The AAPOR's code states:

Good professional practice imposes the obligation upon all survey and public opinion researchers to disclose certain essential information about how the research was conducted. When conducting publicly released research studies, full and complete disclosure to the public is best made at the time results are released, although some information may not be immediately available. When undertaking work for a private client, the same essential information should be made available to the client when the client is provided with the results.

The standards are included in public opinion research classes taught at colleges and universities.

A full list of the standards may be found here.

The $143 million streetcar system tentatively is scheduled to open in spring 2013. It would cover a 4.9-mile loop spanning from University Plaza in Corryville, near the University of Cincinnati, through Over-the-Rhine and downtown, before ending near Great American Ball Park on Freedom Way along the riverfront.

An Enquirer analysis of property records in September 2010 found 92 vacant lots along the proposed streetcar route, and that 36 percent of the 584 buildings along the route are vacant or boarded up.

Supporters have said up to 1,135 housing units and nearly 7.4 million square feet of retail and office space will be created due to the project.

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