Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Thinking About How Reporters Think

I strongly agree with this John Sides takedown of a Carlisle Rainey argument that reporters and political scientists differ primarily because reporters are applying different counterfactuals. Rainey gets the stereotypical reporter wrong; Sides is right:

Journalists are interested in measuring the effects of specific new events, new messages, and so on because that is what they are writing about everyday.  It’s not at all newsworthy to muse on what the world would be like if Mitt Romney, the RNC, and GOP-affiliated super-PACs and 501c’s raised no money. It is newsworthy to speculate on what the attacks on Romney’s time at Bain Capital will mean in November.
Similarly, I think journalists are highly attuned to the ways in which campaigns respond to each other.  Indeed, the back-and-forth between campaigns—Obama attacks Romney on Bain, news outlets report on whether Romney really retired in 1999, Romney surrogates go on Sunday shows and talk about “retroactive” retirement, Romney surrogates bring up Teresa Heinz Kerry’s tax returns, etc., etc. —is also what reporters cover everyday.
Where I'd part ways a bit from John is this bit about stereotypical reporters:
Most wouldn’t assume implausibly large effects of events in the average presidential campaign; few would say, I imagine, that Romney’s record at Bain threatens to turn the election into a 1964-style landslide.  But I think they do imagine that such events could make the difference between winning and losing, whereas political scientists are more skeptical or at least more cautious.  
What I'd say is a bit different -- well, not about the "cautious" part of it. Where journalists really differ from political scientists -- and, it's important to emphasize here that we're talking about stereotypical reporters, and many are far better than this -- is that they don't feel an obligation to tally up all the effects that the are describing. The concentration is on, as John says, the day-to-day, but there's no expectation that they'll add up the effects of the effects that believe they see, nor any methodology for doing so. So I think if you added up all the implied effects, you might find that they are implausibly large (I'm thinking in particular of some claims about Ronald Reagan's age joke in the second debate in 1984 here, but I've also seen lots of stuff about the Romney campaign "imploding" over the last week when it's not clear that the Bain stuff will have any effect at all). Although part of what happens here is that reporters can also be quite sensible at times...it seems to me that there's just no connection at times between how they talk about specific events and about the campaign as a whole.

What I'd also add is that in many cases, the reporter is the wrong person to finger. A lot of good reporters-as-pundits are probably reflecting the thinking of participants, and how they experience the campaign. And it's no surprise that campaign professionals and the candidates themselves overemphasize the importance of campaign effects and candidates -- not only because of people naturally tend to inflate their own importance, but because those are the things that matter to them in their lives. That is, those are the things they can have some influence over. Remember my favorite McLaughlin Group thing: they promised (promise? I guess it's still on, somehow) to provide "inside opinions and forecasts" -- not smart opinions and accurate forecasts, but just the ones that insiders held. And they delivered! You can't blame them if the opinions were foolish and the forecasts were wildly inaccurate; all that counted was whether they were accurately sharing what Washingtonians were thinking. That's probably true, without the labeling, for a fair amount of reporting and punditry.

It's also true that while reporters are definitely responsible for some whoppers, a lot of the pundits on TV are neither journalists nor political scientists.

Anyway, on the whole I find John's description of the stereotypical journalist far more accurate than the Rainey version.

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