The perils of taking information at face value

A CAA press release on Portage and Main overstated opposition to pedestrian traffic.

CAA press release on Portage and Main overstated opposition to pedestrian traffic

The corner of Portage and Main has been closed to pedestrians for 37 years. (Google Street View)

On any given day newsrooms are inundated with a steady flow of press releases from governments, its agencies and a host of private organisations from around the province.

So it wasn't unusual when earlier this week an email came in first thing in the morning from CAA Manitoba announcing the results of their latest membership survey.

The topic: opening Portage and Main to pedestrian access.

The press release declared that an "overwhelming majority" of Winnipeg CAA members want the intersection to remain closed off to pedestrians.

Given the longstanding debate over this very issue and the fact that Winnipeg's mayor Brian Bowman campaigned on the idea that citizens should once again be able to cross that intersection by foot, it was only a matter of time before our newsroom and nearly all others rushed to publish their own versions of the story under tight deadlines.

Ever the skeptic, a newsroom colleague thought it worthwhile to request a copy of the underlying survey results — which had not been provided as part of the press package — to better understand how CAA Manitoba derived its conclusions.

One of the most intriguing observations was that CAA Manitoba's key assertion that "an overwhelming majority of its members do not support opening the iconic intersection to pedestrian traffic" was not actually supported by any number in the press release.

It was only after reviewing the requested survey results that we learned that the "overwhelming majority" referenced in the press release represented 62.2 per cent of respondents.

As we looked further into the original unfiltered numbers, misrepresentations of the survey results began to emerge.

What CAA told the public:

"More than three quarters of respondents believe traffic congestion would be a significant problem if the intersection is opened."

What its survey data showed:

It showed 56.5 per cent of respondents said they believe congestion would be a serious problem. CAA Manitoba lumped in the 21.9 per cent who said they believe congestion would be a "moderate problem" to come up with the three-quarter figure.

What CAA told the public:

"Over 70 per cent of respondents said they felt opening the intersection should not be a priority for the City of Winnipeg."

What its survey data showed:

Forty-five per cent of respondents said they believe opening Portage and Main to pedestrians is "not a priority." The 70-per-cent figure was achieved by including the 27.2 per cent of respondents who said it was a "low priority."

CAA also presented a sampling of 20 comments from surveyed members to illustrate sentiment through verbal feedback. Despite the fact that 23 per cent of respondents surveyed were in support of pedestrian access to the intersection, none of the quotes provided to media were in support of dismantling the barricades.

A deeper look at the survey results also showed that certain findings were not referenced in the materials sent to media. For example, the survey showed that close to 70 per cent of respondents do not work downtown and that over 65 per cent of respondents drive through the intersection one to three times a month or less.

After bringing these issues to light on social media, CAA Manitoba responded that the survey was not a scientific poll and rather was intended to take the pulse of its membership on the issue.

In a follow up email response, CAA Manitoba said it stood behind the information it sent to the public. When asked about why certain responses were lumped into other categories leading to inflated figures, they responded by saying the results were "generalized" for ease of communication with the public.

Collectively these statements from CAA have had the effect of overstating the opposition to pedestrian access to the intersection. The resulting wide dissemination of the initial information through media and social media platforms impacts how Winnipeggers and local policy makers perceive the debate.

Current polling by Probe Research suggests a slim majority (53 per cent) of Winnipeggers oppose pedestrian access at Portage and Main. However, regardless of where you stand on the debate, the CAA Manitoba survey serves as a cautionary tale for citizens and newsrooms to carefully scrutinize information that shapes public opinion in our communities before clicking "share" or "publish".