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Southam Poll Questions Questionable
Special Editorial Section

by Barrie Zwicker


MONTREAL — At $200,000, it was expensive. It was carefully planned by intelligent people. The results were widely published in early October as "The Searching Nation" series.

But this poll, conducted for Southam Press Ltd., has come under such fire that there is now a general reassessment of polls in editorial offices across the country.

The majority of questioners from the working media at the national seminar on the press and the confederation debate were searching for answers to questions such as:

  • Why did the poll refer to "Prime Minister" Trudeau but "Mr." Levesque?
  • Why did a question refer to the media's "promoting" national unity rather than, for instance, "informing the public about" national unity issues?
  • Why did the poll dwell on questions about possible civil war and the form such a war might take? "I hated the insistence (on the possibility of civil war) ... will we fight with a knife, a fork ..." teased Solange Chaput-Rolland at a seminar workshop. Mme. Chaput-Rolland is a 25-year veteran journalist, author and broadcaster and a member of the Task Force on National Unity.

Communications professor Gerald Alperstein of the University of Evansville, Evansville, Ind., whose expertise includes polling, said a Southam question on the media "was probably one of the worst questions that has ever been written." The question required a single answer but related, Alperstein noted, to 12 answer areas.

Sitting on an evening panel focussed on the survey, four of its creators refused to back down. "Premier Levesque could have written many passages himself," said Paddy Sherman, publisher of the Vancouver Province. (Levesque at noon the same day had quoted a La Presse editorial characterizing the survey as "ill-conceived, ill-structured, badly-written and badly-interpreted.")

The consensus seemed to be that the poll was generally interesting and useful as an indicator of attitudes among Canadians outside Quebec at one point in time, but that the Quebec results were questionable.

The nature of a number of the questions and the rendering of the results (especially some headlines, including the one saying a million people might leave Quebec) were most criticized and least ably defended.


Published in Content's SOURCES December 1977


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