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On the Relationship between Journalism and Social Science

- May 7, 2008

In response to my post below on David Brooks, Ian McDonald comments:

bq. Your last paragraph (tongue in cheek, I guess) makes me wonder: what do you think is the right symbiosis between good journalism and good social science?

bq. I ask because: I think good journalism needs to take risks. I am a big David Brooks fan and I will cut him a lot of slack on factual precision, because he asks good questions, and he always entertains me. While he writes about his social disparity ideas a lot, I don’t agree that he’s completely vested in one interpretation (see the last paragraph of this Atlantic piece). http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2001/12/brooks.htm

bq. Sure, some pundits get it wrong, habitually, because of self-serving motives, and thus poison the conversation. I think you would agree: Brooks isn’t one of them.

bq. At the same time, nobody wants to be flat out wrong (I think). Maybe social scientists and journalists really can help each other. Proactively and hate free. And still make deadlines and stay interesting.

Ian raises a very good question. I completely agree that social scientists and journalists can work together.

My further thoughts are these. First, I want to distinguish between David Brooks and journalism. Obviously, he writes columns, not news articles, and thus is in the business of commentary, not reporting. Brooks is also often an amateur social scientist, and, as such, I hold him to a weaker version of the standards to which academics are held. That is to say, I wasn’t at all joking when I said this:

bq. If it’s asking too much for Brooks to spend half an hour with the National Election Studies before writing a column like this, then consider this my job application. David Brooks, I will make pretty graphs and easy-to-read cross-tabulations for you. Just say the word. (David Park is ready to run your regressions.) Give us a call.

I would not demand that David Brooks worry about all of the ideals of empirical social science: rigorous theories, careful conceptualization and measurement, appropriate evidence, caution in drawing inferences from inherently limited data. But what I am suggesting — simple analysis to confirm the most basic thrust of a hypothesis — is not asking too much. In fact, given the platform Brooks has at the Times, it is his responsibility not to present arguments without making more of an effort to confirm them with data, where appropriate. I think his bad arguments — e.g., red and blue states — actually do violence to our discourse about politics. (See also Barry’s comment on my original post.) If Brooks wants to take risks by proffering new ideas without digging up the necessary evidence, then he needs to moderate his tone to convey the appropriate uncertainty.

Yes, I realize that columnists have an incentive to be provocative. Yes, they write on deadline. And yes, most do not have the necessary skills to analyze large datasets. That is why my offer to help Brooks do analysis is not at all facetious or sarcastic. I really would do it. And for much less than the $4000 Bill Kristol is paid to write each column.

What about reporters and journalists?

Obviously, I do not expect reporters or journalists to do social science — e.g., to crunch data. However, it is reasonable to expect journalists not to misuse data. For example, at the Washington Post and ABC, their respective pollsters, Jon Cohen and Gary Langer, must vet any news article that uses polling data, to ensure that reporters are not drawing on bogus polls with convenience samples and not overstating a poll’s findings.

Beyond that, journalists should be familiar with the academic research that informs their beat. Familiarity could arise from their own reading and from their conversations with academics. As a political scientist, I find myself increasingly cranky that stories about the law or economics or medicine routinely cite lawyers or law professors, economists, and doctors, while stories about politics cite political scientists much less often.[1] The difference, I think, is that many reporters see politics as something that they “know” and not something that science can help illuminate. There is also a mass of political “experts” — campaign professionals, former elected officials, etc. — who can readily provide “analysis” that may reflect a real understanding but may also be intuition, rote repetition of the conventional wisdom, and pure making-it-up-as-you-go-along. Moreover, I certainly recognize that political science research is often a cold shower, as political scientists are much more cautious about trumpeting the importance of recent events whose impact is not yet clear, while journalists have incentives to generate “news” by inflating the importance of these events.

Nevertheless, I think political reporters should know the basic outlines of political science findings and debates about such questions as:

* Do campaigns matter?
* What is the role of momentum in primary elections?
* Does divided government make government less productive?
* Do campaign contributions influence how members of Congress votes?
* Are bureaucrats able to subvert presidential directives?
* Does a divided primary hurt the nominee in the general election?
* What is the relationship between income and voting? (Enter Gelman et al.)
* Does democracy promote economic development?
* What leads to interstate wars and civil wars?

That is a very non-exhaustive, top-of-my-head list.

It’s not important that every article ever written about politics quote political scientists or refer to political science. It’s important that political science research inform how political reporters think about politics. They would ask different questions. They would be better able to identify truly important events, thereby separating signal from noise. They would be better able to evaluate the claims of political leaders. Lots of political scientists would be willing to point journalists toward relevant studies and/or summarize the extant literature on any subject.[2]

Of course, reporters face constraints in terms of time, resources, etc. But I think knowing something about the academic study of their chosen field is important. The Columbia School of Journalism seems to agree, as their M.A. program now requires students to work not just with journalism professors but professors in a chosen area of concentration, such as politics, business, or science (see here).

I regularly teach the media and politics to undergraduates and I always emphasize that simply bashing the media isn’t fair. I certainly don’t want to engage in — nor do I want this blog to become — an ongoing critique of media coverage. But media coverage of politics can become much better, and attention to political science would help.

[1] When journalists do cite political science, it’s not always pretty, as John Harwood of the New York Times demonstrates when he misconstrues Daron Shaw’s quote about the general election campaign — “There has been a consensus that presidential campaigns are primarily the means by which we arrive at predictable outcomes” — as a statement about the primary campaign, which he then “rebuts” in the next paragraph by noting how “unpredictable” Obama’s rise was. A commonplace of political science is that campaigns matter much more in presidential primaries than in the general election.

[2] And political scientists must also promote their research. That is obviously a purpose of this blog.