Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Abdul Hakim-Shabazz and "Anonymous Facts"

Talk radio host and conservative blogger Abdul Hakim-Shabazz won an award from the Society of Professional Journalists recently. As fellow blogger Jon Easter of Indy Democrat points out, he has spent his time since winning the award personally attacking and spreading rumor of local lawyer Paul Ogden and reporting polls without citing a source. Specifically, he cites a poll taken that puts Mayor Greg Ballard's approval ratings countywide at a similar level of Governor Mitch Daniels statewide approval ratings. The source of the poll is, and I'm not kidding, "word has it."

He does not cite a source for approval ratings of either the Mayor of Indianapolis or the Governor of Indiana.

Easter goes on to talk about his reaction to a previously reported rumor that Shabazz has reported on concerning City-County Councilor Angela Mansfield (D) that relates to the proposed smoking ban. Shabazz reported that Mansfield was banned from the Living Room, a local establishment that allows smoking, due to Mansfield's support of the smoking ban proposal. Easter went on to make a blog post saying he wouldn't be frequenting the Living Room due to the ban. Mansfield later wrote to Easter saying Living Room staff told her that the rumor was false and they'd never stoop to a petty level to score political points. Apparently, Shabazz never checked with the Living Room management or councilor Mansfield to confirm or deny the rumor.

To be fair to Shabazz, he reported it as a rumor. However, when reporting something that can easily be verified, it should. It is very easy to establish if someone has been banned from an establishment. At least two groups of people would know. The staff of the establishment and the person that was banned.

But what Shabazz did this time around was more than just reporting a rumor. He cites a poll that that pushes his pro-Ballard view point, but doesn't source it. He's done this before too. He also reported on a poll that had Ballard polling at 50% approval among African-Americans, again without citing the poll.

Finally, after Daniels finally admitted his FSSA privatization failed, Shabazz cites a rumor that FSSA's privatization saved $145 million. If he had left it at that, then so be it. But he goes on to use it to score political points, saying that if it saved $145 million as a failure, then how great would success be? He made a similar statement on his radio show.

This is just not how someone reporting on facts uses anonymous sources. When you are reporting on ongoing criminal investigations, the sources one would use likely won't want their names printed. Shabazz did just that when reporting on the FBI's investigation into Lincoln Plowman, the (now) former City-County Councilor and Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department cop. His reporting of it lined up with later reportings of the same event with a few minor details left out. Stories involving so-called whistle blowing or other types of corruption are also appropriate to use anonymous sources. But citing factual data or polls is not a case to use anonymous sources.

In a related note, a commentor on Indiana Barrister found something called the National Council of Public Polling (NCPP). The Principals of Disclosure list the basic requirements to be in compliance with NCPP:

Level 1 Disclosure: All reports of survey findings issued for public release by a member organization will include the following information:

  • Sponsorship of the survey
  • Fieldwork provider (if applicable)
  • Dates of interviewing
  • Sampling method employed (for example, random-digit dialed telephone sample, list-based telephone sample, area probability sample, probability mail sample, other probability sample, opt-in internet panel, non-probability convenience sample, use of any oversampling)
  • Population that was sampled (for example, general population; registered voters; likely voters; or any specific population group defined by gender, race, age, occupation or any other characteristic)
  • Size of the sample that serves as the primary basis of the survey report
  • Size and description of the subsample, if the survey report relies primarily on less than the total sample
  • Margin of sampling error (if a probability sample)
  • Survey mode (for example, telephone/interviewer, telephone/automated, mail, internet, fax, e-mail)
  • Complete wording and ordering of questions mentioned in or upon which the release is based
  • Percentage results of all questions reported

Member organizations reporting results will endeavor to have print and broadcast media include the above items in their news stories.

Member organizations conducting privately commissioned surveys should make clear to their clients that the client has the right to maintain the confidentiality of survey findings. However, in the event the results of a privately commissioned poll are made public by the survey organization the above items should be disclosed.

In the event the results of a privately commissioned poll are made public by the client, the survey organization (a) shall make the information outlined above available to the public upon request and (b) shall have the responsibility to release the information above and other pertinent information necessary to put the client's release into the proper context if such a release has misrepresented the survey's findings.

And in a strongly worded press release from 2009 (click here for the full press release):

In the wake of a recent controversy over the work of one polling firm, the National Council on Public Polls today issued a new call for full disclosure by all pollsters whose work is part of the public debate.

“When polling firms release the results of a survey, the pollster is asking the public to believe the poll is accurate, credible and worthy of consideration,” said Evans Witt, NCPP President. “Releasing the key information about a poll allows the public to make that judgment based on the facts. Failure to release the information deprives the public of the essential facts it needs and opens the door to questions about the poll’s validity.”

Shabazz can present facts and polls, unsourced, all he wants. And it's his blog, he has the right to do so. But statical facts are cold, hard, and simple, and shouldn't need to be confidential in their sources. Especially in the case of polling, they should be sourced and the methodology should be revealed. Otherwise, the numbers might as well be made up. Their credibility, when unsourced, is about the same.

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