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Public editor: Never assume what a reader knows

There are times when newspaper and web stories are written almost in shorthand. The writer and the people they talk to every day know the background of a story and they know the technical terms. At times, writers forget that every story must stand alone. Any reader should be able to dive into a story, whether they have been following it or not, and make sense of it. They shouldn't have to look up terms or background elsewhere.

A reader sent a note about a story written about the latest Nanos leadership index. Here is what the story said: "The Nanos Leadership Index – a compendium of scores based on responses to questions about which federal political leader voters believe is most trustworthy and competent and has the best vision of the country – shows voter trust in Mr. Harper has returned to its traditional level of around 100. To be precise, Mr. Harper earned a score of 104.2 in a poll conducted between Nov. 9 and Nov. 15. He has scored at or around 100 more often than not since the beginning of 2008…"

Perhaps you are one of the readers who knows about this index, but it stopped me as well. We are used to reading polling stories about percentage support (within a margin of error). But what does that 100 mean? The writer properly describes it as a compendium of scores based on questions of who is trustworthy, competent and has the best vision, but needed to say more.

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This story on the Nanos study explains how and why Mr. Harper's numbers have improved over the past months. But to me, it doesn't explain well enough how the poll works.

The Nanos Leadership Index asks respondents three questions: Which of the federal leaders (Stephen Harper, Thomas Mulcair, Bob Rae, Daniel Paillé, Elizabeth May) is most trustworthy, most competent and has the best vision for Canada. Based on the three answers, each leader is rated with a percentage out of 100 on each question. Those results on each question are then tallied up to give a total number (out of a possible total of 300 not 100).

So while the numbers are quite different they are measuring quite different views. The story needed to say that the compendium of scores added the totals on all three questions to give Mr. Harper more than 100.

Mr. Nanos explains that his index "is important in term of measuring a leader's strength relative to other federal party leaders and in fact, more closely simulates a real political situation because when Canadians choose a government, they do not vote base on the ideal federal party leader but on the choices, some might say, the imperfect choices, they are presented with."

Still the reader had another question: "Only two weeks ago, however, an Environics poll found that 'only 16 per cent of Canadians place "a lot of trust" in their Prime Minister, putting Stephen Harper near the bottom among all leaders in the Americas.' Help! Did I miss something here? Did something happen recently to vault him to the top?"

The polls are asking different questions and using different methodologies.

This poll was looking at political attitudes in 26 countries in the Americas and judging how Canadians view their leader against how other nations view theirs.

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Mr. Nanos noted that "The Environics study is important in terms of measurement but does not prompt, to my knowledge, respondents to choose one party leader over another in terms of trust, competence and vision…. As the old adage goes, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man (or woman) is king. Asked their views in the absence of choices, Canadians may harshly judge Harper against perfection, but the reality is that he is truly judged against the other choices presented to Canadians."

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More

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