A Political Scientist Encounters Quote Bubble Journalism

Henry Farrell, a professor of political science at George Washington University and a blogger at both Crooked Timber and The Monkey Cage, was recently interviewed by The Associated Press for an article about waning public trust in government. And while the story used a quote from Farrell making the point that trust in government tends to rise and fall with the economy, he wasn’t entirely happy with the outcome:

The juxtaposition here strongly suggests to readers that I was simply arguing that the current decline in trust was a product of the recent recession, and that I didn’t say anything at all about historical trends. But… I [made] it quite clear that the relationship between trust and economic growth was one that had stretched over several decades…

… I can understand how the political science take on this makes for a poor journalistic story—it suggests that the debate about how trust is declining today is a non-issue. [AP reporter Liz Sidoti] doesn’t have to be convinced by this argument… But at the least she could have accurately reported what I said, and why I said it.

For a fuller discussion of why the poli-sci take on trust “makes for a poor journalistic story,” see this post by Farrell’s fellow Monkey Cage blogger John Sides, previously linked by CJR here. (And ponder, too, what Sides’s first chart means for the AP’s not-inaccurate-but-still-misleading assertion of a “several-decade slide” in trust in government.) But the end of Farrell’s complaint is not restricted to the complicated relationship between political scientists and the political press, or even to this story. Instead, it goes to a broader issue:

I should also say that this is not an unique experience—half the time when a journalist calls me, he or she already has a strong idea of what I ‘ought’ to say to make his or her pre-cooked story work, and makes that emphatically clear either in the interview, or in how he or she uses my quotes in the story afterwards (or, more often, doesn’t use my quotes - I get the impression of an implicit political economy in which academics or experts who conform to the script get rewarded with media coverage).

This doesn’t only apply to experts, of course; “ordinary people” who say things that fill journalists’ ready-made “quote bubbles” are more likely to see their words in print, too. At some level, this is unavoidable—a daily reporter who approaches a story like this without a theory already in mind is likely to blow deadline. But against that reality, journalists need to make a commitment to honestly represent and seriously engage with the things people tell them—and to be ready to be persuaded by them, too.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.