In Brazil, the Big Losers Were the Polls

    Crowns of laurels to the victorious and crowns of flowers to the defeated. Add to them two auspicious dismal news: “pollingittis” got an enormous beating and political “marketingism” a historical whipping. Good for politics, good for democracy, better yet for journalism.

    Crowns of laurels to the victorious and crowns of flowers to the defeated. Add to them two auspicious dismal news: “pollingittis” got an enormous beating and political “marketingism” a historical whipping. Good for politics, good for democracy, better yet for journalism.


    In truth, it was all one big blow: The unmeasured devotion to polls and exaggerated worship to political marketing are part of the same phenomenon, edges of the same process.


    The carnivalization of elections impoverishes and deforms both, the political game and its news coverage.


    Symbol of pollingittis, actually its inventor, the newspaper Folha de São Paulo came out noticeably damaged in São Paulo’s first round elections.


    The big daily so made use of polls, insofar as to creating an institute specialized in it, Datafolha, whose main client is the parent company.


    Folha’s veneration for surveys turned what appeared to be just another of its seasonal fads into a trademark.


    Thanks to that, numerology became a routine journalistic procedure, even during the electoral off season; classic example of the vicious cycle – a pseudo-true fact is invented and soon after is brought to public opinion as an authentic manifestation. Exogenous self-misunderstanding.


    Prophetic responsibility?


    In the last years, not few were the cases when accusations (generally derived from phone-taps, video-tapes, or secret dossiers) brought to action immediate public opinion surveys, thereby – prior to investigations and confirmations – transforming them into summary indictments. 


    Pollingittis is heir-direct to the Factoid Era, very visible during the 90s – unfair to attribute it to Folha only. All big dailies (including the languishing Jornal do Brasil) attempted to clone the recourse by creating specialized firms or by associating themselves to academic institutions.


    One day they came to the realization that it would be less costly and less compromising to disclose results from Datafolha and other competing organizations.


    Folha loved it, elevated to the monopoly of prophecies. Now comes the payback: isolated in limbo, since Ibope, Vox Populi, or Sensus (other polling institutions) only generate information – they are not media channels.


    The Observatório da Imprensa has for years called the attention to the ills of pollingism and the pollingittis that have overtaken our media.


    The weekly newsmagazine Veja finally awoke to the issue in the recent edition (no. 1874, 10/08/04), with an excellent five-page investigation, placing under suspicion the flood of referendums.


    Bound by its infallibility and that of its subsidiary, Folha was the only of the three big national dailies to forecast in its Sunday edition (10/3) the numeric results of an election that had yet to take place:


    * Serra reaches 37%; Marta has 34%


    In an effort to safeguard itself from potential surprises, the subheadings announced the fact that – technically – there was a tie by a margin of error.


    Lost in the front page text, the precious information about the margin of error: 2 points. Folha and Datafolha got screwed on their own. Serra came out with 43.5% and Marta 35.8% – not a shadow of a tie.


    The competitor, the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo, unburden to defend an associated polling business, reprinted Datafolha’s results, comparing them to Ibope’s:


    * Marta and Serra alternate in first place.


    In the subheadings, evading any missteps from polling institutes, it covered its guards by not committing either way: “Serra leads in one poll and Marta in another. But both point to a tie by a margin of error.” Those who announce errors are equally wrong.


    The newspaper O Globo, with an eye on Rio, its market of choice, was less compromised, and instead of a categorical prophecy, heralded the obvious.


    * Runoff election is neck and neck.


    The newspaper surely would not lose a reader. And where is it written that responsible newspapers are required to forecast the outcome of an election?


    Which manual or code of journalism determines that on ballot day the mission of a newspaper is to pretend to being pythoness, foretelling what has not yet played out?


    Marketing Religion


    Beyond the inherent risks and slipups in the dangerous roulette of prophecies, anticipating preliminary results carries an unarguable inducing load. The undecided, in general, decide for winners. And at times, the undecided make the difference.


    Even though current electoral guidelines do not forbid the announcement of polls results on the eve of elections, responsible media should exercise some self-control and sovereignly abstain from such prophetic deeds.


    It would conquer a double dose of credibility – by refusing ever risky predictions and by waiving a right that can compromise its impartiality.


    Unbiased media outlets ought to refrain from the divining temptation, even if on Election Day they are forced to come out with headlines less earth-shaking and a bit more tepid.


    In the day after editions (Monday, 10/4), while O Estado pointed out the inaccuracies in the two forecasts that they had printed, Folha found itself compelled to stick to its godchild’s projections.


    O Estado was more at ease, Folha not so. Both were mistaken in the thinking that opinion polls are absolutely “scientific” and must invariably be published on Election Day.


    Just as Datafolha morphed into a show-room for mediatic prophetism, publicist and advertising man Duda Mendonça became a window for the political marketing shop of magic powers.


    There is a very clear correlation between blind devotion to polls and blind devotion to marketing tricks.


    Mendonça’s first great feat had been to elect Paulo Maluf’s unknown heir, Celso Pitta, to São Paulo mayor’s office.


    Following that, despite accusations of deceiving ads, he was made into a sort of partner to the gods by scoring on the Nation’s Presidency with Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, after his three consecutive failed runs at it.


    Politicians have always carried out political marketing – for their own purposes. It’s the so-called acute sense and charisma. In modern times, image and communications specialists have come to their assistance, but the candidates and their staff give the final word as to strategies and courses of actions.


    They are politicians, and elections are the climax of the political process: to abdicate that is supreme treason. Candidates cannot be manipulated like marionettes, subject to scripts that navigate according to results from each poll. In direct and democratic elections, marketing’s role is complementary.


    It wasn’t by chance that Paulo Maluf (a breed of the military regime) became an apostle of the marketing religion.


    Equally, not by chance, the charming mayor of São Paulo, Marta Suplicy, a client of Duda Mendonça, lost the first round, and her adversary, José Serra – bald, rings under the eyes, and an unfriendly reputation – had minimal rejection rates.


    Less polls and less marketing, more politics and more debates. The press and democracy give thanks.


    Alberto Dines, the author, is a journalist, founder and researcher at LABJOR—Laboratório de Estudos Avançados em Jornalismo (Laboratory for Advanced Studies in Journalism) at UNICAMP (University of Campinas) and editor of the Observatório da Imprensa. You can reach him by email at obsimp@ig.com.br.


    Translated from the Portuguese by Eduardo Assumpção de Queiroz. He is a freelance translator, with a degree in Business and almost 20 years of experience working in the fields of economics, communications, social and political sciences, and sports. He lives in Boca Raton, FL. His email: eaqus@adelphia.net.


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