Press muse – Grafting numbers

Channel NewsAsia on Friday (10 December) ran a story on its website about Transparency International’s 2010 Global Corruption Barometer. Refreshingly, this time the story didn’t bear all good tidings, as the headline suggests:

Singapore does well in global corruption survey but…

Singapore has done relatively well in the latest annual bellwether survey on anti-corruption by global civil society organisation Transparency International but some results of the survey, which was conducted online here, raised eyebrows among those whom MediaCorp contacted.

That barometer, in TI’s words, is “a public opinion survey that assesses the general public’s perceptions and experiences of corruption and bribery” covering 86 countries and territories. It asked respondents’ opinions on how corruption in their country changed in the past three years, how effective their governments’ antigraft policies are, which institutions they trusted most to fight corruption and gauged their willingness to personally combat graft.

Respondents were also asked whether they or someone in their household had paid bribes in the past year (to which institution and why), and to rate 11 institutions on how affected they are by corruption.

A couple of its findings “raised eyebrows”, according to CNA’s story:

…when asked to assess government action against corruption, 31 per cent of the 1,000 respondents here said these actions were ineffective, 40 per cent were undecided and 29 per cent said they were effective.

Among 11 institutions picked for the poll, the media here were perceived to be the most affected by corruption.

But there’s more to the report than just two uncomfortable findings. For instance, CNA declined to mention that 38 percent of the 1,000 Singapore respondents felt corruption had increased in the last three years, compared to 33 percent who felt it stayed the same and 28 percent who felt it had decreased.

It is also worth mentioning Singapore is the only country out of the 84 states and two territories polled that rated the media as the institution most affected by corruption. Bearing in mind, that entails beating out the likes of political parties, parliament/legislature, police, business/private sector, public officials/civil servants, the judiciary, nongovernment organisations, religious bodies, the military and the education system.

On a scale of 1-5, where 1 is “not at all corrupt” and 5 is “extremely corrupt”, the media topped the lot with an average score of 3.0. Trailing in joint second, with 2.9, were political parties, business/private sector, and public officials/civil servants. Scoring best, at 2.6, were parliament/legislature and NGOs.

Not that you’d know any of this from reading the CNA story – it mentions little beyond the fact that the media polled worst. You’d only realise politicians, the civil service and businesses came in a close, ignominious second if your curiosity took your eyes to the actual survey findings.

Perhaps CNA was doing damage control, focusing on the media’s discreditable rating and deflecting attention from the state’s perceived inadequacies. Nonetheless, they were also quick to cast dispersions over the survey’s significance:

…Singapore Management University law lecturer Eugene Tan said he felt that the difference in scores between institutions was too small to be meaningful and that the poll did not explain why the media was ranked lower.

To be sure, to put the numbers in some perspective, Singapore’s institutions scored better than the Asia-Pacific and global averages, which suggests public confidence here is higher than the overall mean. TI also states in its report that the margin of error per country in its findings are between +/- 2.18 to 4.40 percent.

Notwithstanding that, politicians are eager to prescribe a hefty pinch of salt for readers of the report:

When contacted, [Government Parliamentary Committee] deputy chairman (Home Affairs and Law) Hri Kumar Nair reiterated that the majority of Singaporeans do think that government actions against corruption are successful and that the online survey may not paint an accurate picture.

On what basis might Hri Kumar assert these findings don’t reflect the “accurate picture” is open to conjecture, but one suspects the best way through which he could back his claim is presenting data gathered using…a survey.

Then there are methodological issues:

GPC deputy chairman (Information, Communications and the Arts) Baey Yam Keng added: “The online survey might have attracted certain profiles, perhaps people who do not rely on the mainstream media (for news) … that could be something when digesting this information.”

Baey makes a good point. The Singapore survey was done online – hardly ideal as the respondent demographic is likely self-selecting and limited. Although TI said its sampling was probabilistic – i.e. every unit in the population has a greater-than-zero chance of being selected in the sample, and this probability can be accurately determined – doing it online means certain groups are very unlikely to be surveyed, like the 19 percent of Singapore resident households that are without internet access (as of 2009). Even within households with internet access, certain demographics use the internet only infrequently or not at all (think 70-, 80-year-old retirees who prefer TV soaps and newspapers).

TI also said it weighted its findings to make them representative of the general population, although how it might have sought to overcome online polling’s inherent sampling problems is unclear.

Furthermore, the survey design also affords much leeway for respondents to interpret what corruption entails. While this might not be an issue when perceiving corruption in most public and state institutions, it is less clear-cut what constitutes a “corrupt” media. Could the relatively poor corruption rating be a proxy for what respondents see as lack of independence or partiality in Singapore media, rather than a reflection of perceived graft?

So what we have here is no perfect survey; big surprise, nothing is. Still, this knowledge shouldn’t stop us from asking more discerning questions of the results to tease out fresh insight, while avoiding kneejerk accusations based on superficial readings of the data.

But if past form is any guide, government leaders and the mainstream press wouldn’t shy from citing this barometer in future acclamations of traditional media. After all, they were more than enthusiastic in citing less rigorously performed surveys that employed less representative sampling, like the Edelman Trust Barometer referenced by information minister Lui Tuck Yew, to make extravagant, sweeping claims.

Strange then that the Straits Times declined to publish any of TI’s findings on Singapore, instead running a broad-sweeping AFP story that placed the survey within a global context. And while CNA and Today indulged readers with a short story, it was angled to shroud the survey in doubt, applying critical scrutiny notably absent in reports of surveys that offered glowing reviews of our city-state. Such eager shifters of journalistic goalposts our newsroom denizens are.

That politicians are so craftily selective in their rhetoric is to be expected, but regrettably some of our feted journalists too have adopted for an ethos the immortal words of that Class 90.5FM advertisement: “Only hear the good stuff.”

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~ by spiegel2071 on December 11, 2010.

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