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Tracking the polls: Context and analysis warranted | CMFR

Tracking the polls: Context and analysis warranted

Screengrab from the SWS website.


PRESIDENT RODRIGO Duterte’s satisfaction rating hit an all-time high in the fourth quarter of 2019. In the same quarter, self-rated poverty rose to 54%, the highest in five years. But rote reporting hardly noted the possible significance of two seemingly contradictory findings.

The Social Weather Stations (SWS) reports the numbers with little supplementary analysis to help the public make sense of them. With a higher percentages of Filipinos feeling the pinch (self-rated poverty), why the high approvals?

Is there a disconnect between the public sense of well-being or improved quality of life and their approval of the president? The answer to this question would help Filipinos understand these approval ratings. Unfortunately, reportage has been limited in scope, leaving the public largely perplexed. The same can be said about the reporting of survey results which disapprove of the president’s policy initiatives and decisions.

Often treated as hard news, poll numbers are reported as they are released. These are habitually compared to survey results in the previous quarter. This minimal approach highlights the rise or decline of public approval of President Duterte, which in his case has shown unprecedented consistency.

A 2003 Philippine Journalism Review article pointed out that “This ‘hard news’ mentality treats poll results as ‘facts’ that must be reported to the public as soon as possible; instead of in-depth accounts that would be more helpful to those who look at the implications of these ratings, including economic investments, or political and socio-economic action.”

Questions for the Media

Aside from the president’s satisfaction rating, the fourth quarter survey done from December 13 to 16, 2019 also included readings of the public pulse on martial law in Mindanao, “ninja cops” in the police force and human rights abuses in the war on drugs, among others,  the results of which appear to contradict the president’s satisfaction rating:

  • 65% wanted Martial Law in Mindanao to expire by end-2019.
  • 78% believe the accusation that there are ninja cops in the police force.
  • 76% see many human rights abuses in the war on illegal drugs.

CMFR notes that the survey results are featured by SWS separately, days and sometimes weeks of each other. In this instance, the “ninja cops” in the police force survey result was released January 7, followed by human rights abuses in the war on drugs on January 15, the president’s net satisfaction on January 21 and self-rated poverty on January 23. The belated reporting of these negative ratings diminishes the importance of these findings.  The public which reads only about the unprecedented hold of Duterte to his consistently high ratings has no appreciation of the significance of the negative ratings on his policies.

If the press is only closely following each release and merely reporting them without reference to public pulse ratings on other concerns, then media coverage provides a most inadequate assessment of the state of public approval for the president.

The annual SWS Survey Review held at the Asian Institute of Management in Makati City on January 30 summarized the 2019 social weather report, with some findings also showing public skepticism with several government policies and actions, not to speak of outright rejection: 

  • People say they feel free to speak but are aware of the risk of doing so.
  • The removal of Vice president Leni Robredo from the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs (ICAD) was an admission of failure of the War on Drugs.
  • Safety of homes and streets is unchanged, but illegal drugs usage is noticeably less.
  • The people demand forceful resistance to Chinese moves in the West Philippine Sea.
  • The people reject the policy “pivot” towards China and prefer continuance of traditional relations with the U.S.

Alas, media did not seem aware of such an event, or if they were, did not appreciate its news value, with space and airtime given to other reports.

What the experts have to say could be found only in the Op-Ed pages of print. There has been little talk in public affairs programs about the continuing discussion in these circles about how to read the president’s hold over public opinion.

In his January 25 column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Mahar Mangahas, SWS president, wrote: “Clearly, the December rise in the presidential rating was not due to a relief in poverty, since there was none; on the contrary, poverty zoomed. Neither was the latest rise in poverty due to unpopularity of the President, since, on the contrary, he hit a personal best. Things that merely happen at the same time are typically not the causes of each other.”

Dr. Ronald Mendoza, Ateneo School of Government dean, echoed this during the 2020 SWS Survey Review, saying there was little evidence that the net satisfaction across presidents is linked to economic trends. Mendoza adds: “Access to information is one of the key factors thought to influence survey respondents’ perceptions. Put simply, citizens can more effectively assess their leaders if they have adequate access to facts and evidence; and if they are also able to translate this information effectively towards rational and truthful responses to surveys.”

Polls are a way to gauge public opinion and how it changes. But at the same time, polls can also influence perception and political behavior warranting the need for critical analysis and contextual coverage. 

CMFR’s monitors on coverage of surveys:

Simplifying survey terms”, March 2016

Making sense of the surveys: Keep suspects alive”, October 2016

Understanding survey results: More than just numbers”, October 2017

Contradicting surveys: Media must explain”, July 2018

Media gloss over nuances in recent survey results”, October 2018

Media warned about spurious “survey results”, March 2019