Thursday, April 27, 2006

Everybody loves light rail!

The Triangle buro raises a pointed question about this hed and lede from one of the local rags:

Poll: 70% of Triangle residents back rail
DURHAM -- As many as 70 percent of Triangle residents still support a commuter rail link between Durham and Raleigh, and 61 percent think the federal government should help pay for it, according to poll results released Wednesday.

Of the 811 randomly sampled Durham, Orange and Wake County residents questioned April 12 by OnPoint Polling and Research of Raleigh, 70 percent said a variety of transportation options -- including regional rail -- ought to be part of the solution to traffic congestion.

You might be wondering whether 70 percent back the rail link or whether, as the buro chief suggested, that "variety of transportation options" might include "a measure to provide free SUVs and gasoline to everyone in Durham." Well, the Herald-Sun (whose first named source -- funny old world -- is the publicist who presented the transit agency with the results of the poll it commissioned) doesn't say. But the competition has a hint:

Q. Best fix for congestion.
A. More roads only, 23%. Variety of options including roads, buses and regional rail, 70%.

Damn. No SUVs. But turning "variety of options" into "everybody loves light rail" is, to say the least, a stretch. As is:

The poll found 56 percent of people believing a rail system would spur economic development and 52 percent said they'd be more likely to vote for a political candidate who supported regional rail, with 22 percent less likely and 25 percent unsure.

Again, while the competition's coverage isn't necessarily "good," it's measurably better. Here's what the question seems to look like from the N&O:

Q. Whether regional rail would stimulate economic development around the rail stations.

That pesky little prepositional phrase! All of a sudden we've gone from a regional development issue to ... well, to the sort of self-evident bilge seen in the finding that, erm, people in the Triangle want the federal gummint to help with the costs.

On the How Others See Us front, of course, is this:

I found it very difficult, during the telephone survey, to answer the questions in a way that would convey the fact that I don't support the rail system. Many questions were worded such that most answers would show at least some support.

Copyeds, this is why stories about polls that don't mention who ran (and, preferably, who paid for) the poll are always suspect. The true measure of a survey is what it asks and how it reports the findings, but this reader complaint is a good reminder of why we need to play by the rules, every time, without fail. And "playing by the rules" -- did we just mention this below, or am I imagining things? -- includes correcting reporters' blunders, not amplifying them in big type.


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