Political science and journalism: BFFs?

How academics can help improve media coverage of politics

This is my last post for CJR’s United States Project—starting this month, I will instead serve as a contributor to David Leonhardt’s new data-driven site at the New York Times. As I shift roles in my public writing from media critic to political analyst, it seems worthwhile to reflect on how the relationship between political science and journalism has changed over the last few years and to examine what academic insights journalists seem to have found to be especially valuable.

For many years, political science was seen as irrelevant to coverage of politics. Some journalists dismissed its value, while others lamented the discipline’s turn toward quantitative research and what they saw as scholars’ lack of interest in current events. Many academics, in turn, viewed journalism with frustration or indifference.

It’s a cliché to say it, but this distant and often antagonistic relationship has been changed dramatically by the Internet. When academics began to venture into the world of blogs and comment more frequently on current events, journalists and academics started to recognize the mutually beneficial ways in which reporters and political scientists could interact. More recently, social media has deepened the media’s awareness of and interest in academic research. It turns out that many journalists are eager to learn from and engage with social scientists, especially (but by no means only) among those reporters and commentators who are younger and more comfortable with technology.

As a result, political scientists are not only being cited more often in the media but being hired to write for mainstream outlets. Just since 2013, the political science blog The Monkey Cage has become part of WashingtonPost.com, UC-Berkeley Ph.D. Jonathan Bernstein was hired as a columnist for Bloomberg View, the University of Denver’s Seth Masket became a regular contributor to Pacific Standard, and UCLA’s Lynn Vavreck is joining me as a contributor to Leonhardt’s site at the Times. These moves are just a small subset of the ongoing wonk arms race that has created a growing mini-industry of sites drawing on data, statistics, and social science, including Leonhardt’s site, Ezra Klein’s Project X, Nate Silver’s new version of FiveThirtyEight at ESPN, The Washington Post’s Wonkblog, and Jim Tankersley’s new economic policy reporting project for the Post.

In other words: Nick Kristof’s column bemoaning the irrelevance of political science was off the mark. As many of my colleagues have noted, our discipline is more prominent in and engaged with the world around us than it has been in decades. More progress is needed, but the trend is in the right direction and seems likely to continue. (I am currently serving on an American Political Science Association presidential task force that will make recommendations for how the discipline can engage more effectively with the press, public, and policymakers in the coming months.)

Given that more journalists (including, hopefully, Kristof) are now listening, how can social scientists contribute most effectively to media coverage and public debate? In looking back over what I’ve written for CJR, it’s striking how often similar themes recur among those columns that attracted the widest audience:*

Relevance to current events and big stories. Unsurprisingly, journalists and readers want the best information to help them make sense of what’s going on right now. Connecting evidence and theories from social science to current events has been a valuable approach on topics ranging from the likelihood of an Obama victory to hindsight bias in election postmortems and exaggerated claims about the president’s powers to avert sequestration. By contrast, columns that are less closely linked to the news cycle are often less successful at generating media or public attention.

Graphics matter. As the science journalist Chris Mooney recently said, “There’s nothing like a good figure—something people can quickly grasp and understand.” Columns that used visuals to convey the lack of evidence for claims that momentum or gaffes influence election outcomes were widely read, as was a piece that presented plots showing how coverage of the IRS scandal faded by the time exculpatory evidence was released.

Factchecking is here to stay. There is strong interest among CJR readers in a social science perspective on factchecking and misinformation—both tips for making factchecking more effective and, especially, how media coverage can avoid making misinformation worse by covering fringe conspiracy theories or treating discredited views about vaccines or alleged manipulation of employment statistics in a credulous “he said,” “she said” fashion.

Academic research is unlikely to ever be easy for outsiders to read, nor should it be. But if academics can make the insights from that research accessible and relevant, the audience for those findings in both the media and the public is likely to be larger than it ever has been before. That, to me, is a victory worth celebrating.

* Technical note: Examining columns with the greatest readership can’t prove that the factors I list are the reason those pieces attracted larger audiences, but the list is consistent with my overall experience at CJR and hopefully illustrates some larger points about the direction of journalism in 2014.

Homepage photo by sunshinecity used under a Creative Commons license.

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Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at brendan-nyhan.com and tweets @BrendanNyhan. Tags: ,