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How Political Science Can Help Journalists (and Still Let Them Be Journalists)

- May 27, 2011

This is a long post, and I realize that I’ve beat this topic nearly to death, but stick with me.

Following on James Fallows’ post about the recent attention to Donald Trump’s potential candidacy,  Conor Friedersdorf had a thoughtful post this week about why press coverage of campaigns (and politics) is so bad.  Here is one choice quote:

bq. …the press as a whole, and even these publications in particular, signal to their audiences in most every other way that breaking news is most important (his campaign is on the rocks now!).

Brendan Nyhan and I tackle this same topic in a piece (pdf) just published in The Forum.  Our argument is no surprise to regular readers of this blog: political science can help political journalism.  But we think political science can do this while allowing reporters to adhere to the routines and customs of contemporary journalism.  So our piece is not a snarky screed, but an attempt to be constructive and to respect the significant constraints under which journalists operate.  We argue that political science can help journalism in five ways:

  1. providing structural context on episodic events
  2. providing fresh angles on the news
  3. countering spin about the effect of an event for a politician or party
  4. better describing historical trends and points of comparison
  5. clarifying what questions are not well-understood by scholars, and why

Take campaigns (although our argument extends beyond this topic).  Friedersdorf notes this earlier mea culpa by the editors of Politico, who cited the various “bogus narratives” that the media chased during the 2008 campaign.  Brendan and I argue that the media could avoid bogus narratives by putting campaign events in the appropriate context (point #3 above):

bq. It is simply a question of framing the importance of an event differently. Events are not important because they are likely to be “game-changers,” but because political candidates and leaders treat those events as important. This approach enables reporters to frame the stakes more realistically. Given the evidence from previous presidential debates, a presidential candidate who hopes to change the dynamic of a campaign in a debate is likely to fail. Using political science research in this way can help journalists to puncture spin and reveal the limitations of political strategy, treating the statements of politicians, candidates, campaign consultants, and other elites with a skepticism that is backed by hard data.

This is the analogy we use:

bq. Sports reporters will not hype an NCAA tournament game where a #1 seed plays a #16 seed. The #1 seeds have never lost, and that fact gets mentioned in most stories about these games. Similarly, a story about a presidential debate could simply mention the fact that they rarely affect the election’s outcome. Reporters would not need to quote a political scientist to cite this fact.

Note what we are NOT saying here.  We are not saying that journalists should stop covering campaign events and just report all the day long on how much the economy affects elections.  And we are not saying that the solution is to call a political scientist to get a quote.  We are saying that reporters, by understanding some political science findings, can simply tell readers about the historically small effects that presidential debates have had on polls and election outcomes.  Moreover, we are suggesting that coverage that is skeptical of “narratives” and “game-changers” actually fits with other norms of journalism: to be skeptical of what politicians and their surrogates are claiming.

Most campaign journalism goes astray not by chasing the day’s events, but by suggesting implicitly or explicitly that those events are important.  Brendan and I are trying to suggest how reporters can still cover those events and make them seem interesting while not exaggerating their importance.

A second way to improve coverage of political campaigns is to put stories about campaign strategy in the context of broader structural forces (point #1 above).  In other words, acknowledge how much the economy affects elections and then report on how candidates are grappling with that fact.  We cite some examples in the piece, but here is a more recent one written by Peter Nicholas of the Los Angeles Times.  It begins thusly:

bq. Political operatives for both parties believe that pocketbook issues, not foreign policy, will determine the next election, and Obama was quick to pivot from terrorism back to voters’ economic concerns — high gasoline prices, for example.  At the end of a momentous week, President Obama headed for Indiana, hoping he’s now in a position to woo voters like Charlotte Michalak.

That’s how you can write about a day’s campaigning while still being faithful to the fundamentals that drive elections.

A third point.  In an earlier post on the Trump feeding frenzy, Friedersdorf asks for appropriate “viability metrics” for candidates “other than name recognition, fund-raising capacity, and public opinion polls.”  Political science can help here as well by directing reporters to something that political scientists actually don’t know enough about (point #5 above).

bq. For example, consider the presidential nominations process. Recent work by political scientists emphasizes the importance of the “invisible primary”—the campaigning that occurs before the Iowa caucus. A key aspect of the invisible primary is the campaign for endorsements from party leaders. In fact, the number of endorsements candidates receive is strongly associated with the number of delegates they eventually win even after accounting for the amount of money they raise and the amount of news coverage they receive. Unfortunately, as the moniker “invisible primary” suggests, most of the conversations among party elites and between party elites and candidates cannot be easily observed.

The “recent work” is the book The Party Decides, by Martin Cohen, David Karol, Hans Noel, and John Zaller, which I think is a must-read for any reporter covering the 2012 presidential election.  Endorsements thus provide the strict “viability metric,” but more important is just the broader conversation among party leaders about the candidates.  Reporters can ferret out information from these conversations.  Brendan and I cite this story from Politico about the criticisms that conservative intellectuals recently lobbed at Sarah Palin.

There is more detail in the piece, and I should stress again that our arguments and examples don’t only concern campaigns.  Let me also entertain a couple important counter-arguments.  In another piece in The Forum, Greg Marx, very much a fellow traveler, questions whether political science can really help journalism.  I’ve always been fond of the “Moneyball” analogy from baseball, whereby political science helps substitute hard data for reportorial hunches.  Greg suggests that the analogy may not hold:

bq. A typical baseball story, for example, might report that a team has acquired a reserve infielder in a minor trade. But that run-of-the-mill story is likely to hold greater interest for a fan familiar with sabermetric analysis, who has more tools at her disposal to evaluate the merits of the move. At root, the sabermetric approach, while differing from traditional journalistic accounts, affirms that this trade — and all the other day-to-day minutiae that provide grist for coverage of the sport — really matters. An analytical framework rooted in political science, by contrast, poses a much greater challenge to traditional journalistic reporting.

He’s right.  The question is whether the alternative frames that Nyhan and I propose will produce reporting that journalists want to write and consumers want to read.  And I should note, as an aside, that the campaign journalism decried by Fallows, Friedersdorf, and me, among others, appears to be something that consumers do want to read.  See this earlier post.

A second set of objections comes from David Bernstein (brother of Jon), who writes that our pieces is “smart” and “interesting” and “makes useful points” but still “badly misguided.”  Some of these objections reflect a misreading of our piece.  Bernstein thinks, for example, that Brendan and I want “political journalists would cut way back on writing about certain types of campaign events.”  In fact, we are suggesting different frames for these stories, not that there be fewer stories.  But here is a more important objection:

bq. I would further argue that there are basically three ways to appeal to sufficiently substantial segments of this political audience… there are A) liberals who want to feel smarter than conservatives; B) conservatives who want to feel morally superior to liberals; and C) people who want to feel more in-the-loop and in-the-know than everybody else. Those three niche audiences are, of course, targeted by the programming on MSNBC, FOX News, and CNN respectively – but also by Daily Kos, Washington Monthly, the New Yorker, and the American Prospect; by Townhall.com, National Review, and talk-radio syndicators; and by the Washington Post, Politico, National Journal, Morning Joe, and the major-network Sunday morning shows.  These three categories of national niche-seeking media probably account for 90% of what Marx, Nyhan, and Sides see and consider when they think of political journalism. And, about 90% of it is pure jackassery. So, it’s easy to see why it bothers them.

bq. But what they see as flaws to be improved are in fact design features.  Nyhan and Sides posit optimistically that political journalists may come to see that by incorporating academic findings, they can add distinguishing value to their work and thus do better in the marketplace. I’m not sure what media marketplace they’re watching, which rewards those journalists or pundits who are more accurate in their descriptions or predictions of events. I must not get that publication, or network, or web site; I’ll be sure to keep looking.

Bernstein goes on to suggest that any inroads political science has made in journalism are mainly among the Ezra Kleins of the world, who are simply servicing Group A by making them feel smart.

I guess I’m just not that cynical.  I’d actually like to think that political science could target is Group C — the junkies.  If these people want to be “in the know” then I think political science could tell them a few things they might want to know.  And regarding journalists: I agree that the “media marketplace” may not always reward descriptive accuracy, but the professional norms of journalism do.  That’s what Brendan and I are really appealing to here.

Ultimately, Bernstein finds common cause with us.  Reacting to another piece in The Forum by Shanto Iyengar, Bernstein writes that:

bq. Iyengar argues that in the longstanding battle between candidates and the media, candidates have gained an upper hand. This raises “the possibility of unmediated campaigns,” Iyengar writes.  I think Iyengar is not only correct, he’s way, way, understating the situation. I believe that over the past 30 years or so, strategists and other campaign professionals – and political professionals more broadly, in public office as well as on the hustings – have advanced by leaps and bounds in their mastery of marketing, public-relations, advertising, communications, and message control. Meanwhile, changing media patterns, like those I’ve been babbling about here, have made the media far less capable of discerning and countering those political professionals and their tactics.

bq. This, I think, is a crucial area where political-science academics might be able to offer some serious analysis to help the political media…The problem is that in the broad realm of informing the democratic electorate, we journalists are being run over and left in a ditch. I don’t know if you academics have any help to offer, but we sure could use it.

We’re trying.