Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Reporting and Political Science

Oh, gosh, I'm going to be humorless here, and I'll apologize right now for it.  It's not that I can't enjoy some humor at my expense, or at the expense of a group I'm a part of (although, sure, I'll admit that I might enjoy first-class humor at the expense of sociologists a bit more).  I just have a point to make.  I'm not complaining.  Really.

I suppose I need to explain what I'm talking about, which is Chris Beam's fun "what if political scientists covered the news" item in Slate.  It's good!  But you know what (and here comes the humorless part)...we, that is political scientists, really don't object to coverage of much of what is covered by the press.  I suppose I should speak for myself: I don't mind most of the stuff that gets covered.  I can think of some things I would like to be covered more than they are -- policy, and state and local politics, some of the things that happen in Congress -- but really, I'm not out there complaining about too much focus on the president, or on horse race coverage of campaigns. That's what readers want, and it's not fair to blame editors and producers, reporters and correspondents, for responding to their customers.

What do reporters get wrong?  I can think of a few broad classes of things that seem to really annoy academic experts.  I'll stick to two here... 

Probably the biggest is inappropriate causal claims.   Beam does a great job on that in his piece.  No, the president's comments on X won't actually affect his approval ratings very much.  No, a campaign gaffe won't in most cases affect election results.  No question about it; reporters often give too much causal importance to transitory stuff, whether they're talking about elections, or legislating, or anything else.  Second, to me, is failure to put things in proper historical context.  We've been seeing that in claims that Ronald Reagan would have been able to rise above various things that have caused problems for Obama, claims that ignore Reagan's own volatile approval ratings.  Sometimes really new and different things do happen, but usually it's the claim that past examples don't apply to some incredibly new phenomenon, and not history, which is bunk.

However.  Many political scientists -- me! -- absolutely love a well-reported descriptive piece on something that's actually happening.  I did an item yesterday about Jeff Zeleny's article about Town Hall meetings -- it's a great example.  Of course, I can't vouch for the actual reporting, but assuming that he got that right, the rest of it is what I'm talking about.  He focuses on  telling the story, not speculating about What It All Means, or How It Will Affect the Elections, or anything like that.  From reading the story, I not only learned something I didn't know (why I haven't been hearing about the crazies at Town Hall meetings), but I got some of the texture of the story, so that I could really get a feel for what's happening.  Now, does the story about Town Halls "matter" in the sense that it will affect the 2010 elections?  Probably not.  Is it a key indicator that helps us guess what will happen in the elections?  Nope.  Has it ever happened before?  I don't know.  Is it a fundamental change in how Congress represents Americans?  I doubt it.  But it is part of what Congressional politics was like in 2010, and so I find it interesting, on its own merits.  I'd hate to have either missed out on learning about it because it didn't "matter" in any of those senses, or have had to wade through a bunch of silly claims and false assumptions in order to get there.  During the campaign, I'm as interested as anyone in the latest ads, the latest gaffes, and so on.  They're interesting.  They're how most of us experience the campaign.  That's enough, even if it isn't how most of us choose which candidate to support. 

Obviously, I can't ask reporters to avoid all speculation about causal relationships, to always have a firm grasp of history, or to consult with experts whenever they are tempted to stray beyond their expertise on those things (although they could!).  Mostly, I'm just saying that as far as I know, most political scientists aren't going to be upset if reporters, you know, find out about things that are happening and tell us about them.

(No good place to stick it up there, but I'll link to Greg Marx's story that sparked this off down here at the bottom).

1 comment:

  1. Hi Bernstein! Got here from the Marx piece and enjoyed reading your musings. NWP would be proud. He would also savage you from time to time (over tea, of course -- can you imagine him deigning to comment on a blog post??), but I think he'd mostly approve. ;) -- J. Steen


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