Election reporting in the Irish Times: the strange decision to start using two decimal places

The below picture is copied and pasted from Pat Leahy’s report of the Dublin Bay South by-election, in the Irish Times of 28th June 2021 – that is, in the middle of the election campaign.

The picture is interesting in a number of ways, not least in comparison with the actual result. Ivana Bacik received very favourable, some would say biased, media coverage during the campaign, and her vote increased from the 22% shown here to 30% of first preferences in the election itself 11 days later, and that was enough to get her elected. But the reason for displaying the picture here is to show that, in reporting the opinion poll findings, the Irish Times used percentages rounded to the nearest integer. Not a decimal place in sight.

Now look at the second picture, also from the Irish Times, but now displaying the actual percentage share of first preference votes, after the election was over. Suddenly, the Irish Times has switched to reporting percentage support to two decimal places, an extraordinary level of precision for a bar chart presentation.

Why on earth would the Irish Times do this? The explanation should perhaps be sought in the percentage support for the next party along, in descending order of first preference share.

That party was Aontú. If the results had been rounded to the nearest integer, SPBP would have appeared on the chart as 3%, as would SD, but Aontú would also have had 3% support, and would have had to be included in the chart along with the others. If they had used one decimal place instead, SPBP would be listed as 2.8% and Aontú would also be listed as 2.8%; here, too, Aontú would have had to be included along with SPBP.

The only way that SBPP could be included in the chart, and Aontú excluded, was to go to two or more decimal places, and that is what the Irish Times did.

In actual numbers, SPBP got 759 first preferences, and Aontú got 740, what most of us would regard as a truly miniscule difference. In fact, after transfers, the SPBP candidate was actually eliminated before the Aontú candidate. To all intents and purposes, these two candidates got the same level of support in this election. They should both have been included in the reporting, or both excluded.

In the most pro-choice constituency in the country, a fledgling and under-funded party like Aontú, which had been denied access to the RTE main debate, did rather well to get this level of support. But the Irish Times would likely regard this as an unwelcome development, and this may have manifested itself in their sudden conversion to two-decimal-place reporting.

It would be an exaggeration to say that the Irish Times would go to any lengths to stifle the growth of pro-life political parties. But there is a prima facie case that they are willing to go to two decimal places. One wonders whether to laugh or cry.



Jim Stack MSc PhD is a retired Mathematician/Statistician, and is writing here in a personal capacity. Most of his research output is listed on https://www.researchgate.net/scientific-contributions/39162763_Jim_Stack

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