One of the most encouraging trends in journalism over the past few years has been the tentative embrace of political science by a number of reporters and pundits. To be sure, that embrace is partial and incomplete: poli sci can still do more to inform news coverage, which still tends to rely on elite sources like pundits, operatives, and elected officials rather than academic research and the scholars who produce it. But notable journalists like The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein and David Leonhardt and Adam Liptak of The New York Times now routinely consult political scientists as sources and frame stories in ways that reflect academic insights. (Disclosure: I moonlight as a media critic, but in my day job I’m an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College.)
The reporter who’s probably done more than anyone else to integrate political science into daily news coverage, however, actually works at a regional newspaper in the Midwest: Craig Gilbert of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Among the nearly 700 articles archived under Gilbert’s byline in the Nexis Academic database, a remarkable 16 percent mention the terms “political science” or “political scientist.” And a closer examination of this coverage over the last two years reveals that these aren’t just cursory citations or “expert” quotes that fill out stories—Gilbert’s consultation with academics frequently allows him to bring in data or findings that are neglected in mainstream political coverage.
For instance, journalists frequently struggle to understand or explain the causes of partisan polarization. But Gilbert’s carefully-reported March 10 story examining the roots of the partisan divide in Wisconsin—perhaps the deepest in the nation—incorporated an under-appreciated point from Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University who has written extensively on the topic: “Abramowitz… says a more educated, engaged electorate may also help explain the depth of division, since voters who follow politics more closely tend to be more partisan and more aware of the differences between the parties.” In other words, it’s because modern-day Wisconsin closely approximates the civics-textbook ideal of high voter knowledge and participation that the state is home to high levels of partisan conflict. Conversely, as University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist Charles Franklin told Gilbert back in May 2012, independent voters—whom journalists often lionize—are typically more disengaged: “The moderate middle is also usually the more un-engaged middle, rather than the fierce independent (middle).”
Then there’s the challenge of simply quantifying polarization: how far apart are members of the two major parties? To address this question, many reporters rely on ad hoc evaluations of candidate voting records or rankings procedures like the one produced by National Journal, which is based on a tiny subset of votes. Gilbert, by contrast, has written a series of articles in the last two years using estimates of legislator ideology from the political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal. Gilbert has used the Poole and Rosenthal data, which are estimated using all non-lopsided votes in each session of Congress, to explain the ideological stakes in Wisconsin’s 2012 U.S. Senate race and the gulf in voting records between Tammy Baldwin, the Democratic senator elected in 2012, and the Ron Johnson, the Republican who won in 2010. He took the same approach to show how polarization in roll call voting among members of the state’s Congressional delegation has been driven by the shift of Republicans to the right—the same pattern observed at the national level.
But it’s not just polarization that gets the academic treatment. As the voting wars continue to play out, Gilbert’s coverage of the impact of potential election-related policy changes is similarly informed by political science. When Republicans floated a proposal to reallocate electoral votes based on presidential candidates’ vote share in Congressional districts, Gilbert pointed his readers to an analysis by Abramowitz arguing that the plan, “if adopted for the entire nation, would give Republicans a major advantage in presidential elections.” Similarly, Republicans in the state at one point proposed ending election-day registration, which is assumed to help Democrats at the polls. But Gilbert’s coverage raised a counterintuitive note: a study by UW-Madison’s Jacob Neiheisel and Barry Burden actually found that same-day registration increased Republican vote share when it was first implemented in the state.
More generally, Gilbert frequently interviews prominent state experts with specialized expertise—such as Franklin, a respected scholar of public opinion at UW-Madison who directed the Marquette Law School poll in 2012, and Ken Goldstein, a colleague of Franklin’s who studies campaign advertising and now directs the Campaign Media Analysis Group at Kantar Media, a service that tracks political ad spending. As a result, his coverage of polls and the campaign ad wars is unusually sophisticated and data-driven.
At a personal level, I’m curious why Gilbert has taken this approach (I don’t know him). But despite the progress in recent years, the more important question for journalism is why other reporters have not done the same. Political science certainly doesn’t have all the answers, but it can help make reporting smarter. So why is Gilbert such an outlier?