Posts Tagged ‘democracy’

A Conversation about Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences (on WORT’s “A Public Affair”)

September 14, 2014 Leave a comment

I had the great pleasure of interviewing my former next door office neighbor from my days at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, John Hibbing. We talked about his book (with Kevin Smith and John Alford)Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences. My interview with John was the second of my guest hosting appearances on 89.9 WORT in Madison’s “A Public Affair.” I had a ball and was happy to share John and friends’ most interesting research with our listeners. You can listen to the conversation here, scroll down to September 12, 2014 to stream it or download it. I recommend downloading so you can fast forward past the banjo that ends the previous show and Friday’s news that leads off the show.


On Studying Things

February 28, 2014 Leave a comment

I used to be a reporter. From the ages of 14 to 24, I worked in radio (and occasionally television) newsrooms – first in my hometown of Marshall, MN at KMHL (1400 on your AM dial), then at the University of Nebraska (90.3, KRNU), then at CBS31/1470WMBD in Peoria, IL, and finally KFAB (the 50,000 watt blowtorch on AM radio) in Omaha, NE. I liked being a reporter. My job was to report the verifiable truth to our audience.

In 2000, I started to get interested in thinking about why news coverage looked the way it looked and whether the way we reported the news and the way politicians framed contemporary problems was good for democracy. Quickly, I realized that an answer had to involve some idea of what a good democracy would look like, evidence of what factors made up news coverage, evidence detailing how politicians framed issues, and evidence of whether any or all of that influenced public attitudes, associations, and behaviors. I took the summer and fall of 2000 to work as a press secretary on an ill-fated congressional campaign while I started to prepare for my new life. . . in the academy.

I decided to go to graduate school and get a Ph.D. in political science at Indiana University.

Now, I am on the faculty of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin, where I also hold an affiliation in the Department of Political Science.

I love being a scholar. I love being given the freedom to think of things I would like to know and working on my own or with other smart, curious, hard-working and kind people to try and figure out the answers. I love teaching undergraduate and graduate students. The classroom is roughly analogous, at least to me, of appearing on air to convey the verifiable truth to an audience—though the give and take with students, the pouring over their papers and exams, the meeting with them outside of class and so forth is much more personally rewarding for me than airing a great story was.

Now that I have sufficiently buried the lede, let me present it. I am mystified by the continued public questioning of why we should want to know things that speak to the health of our democracy.

Two examples of what I mean. The first was the attack from Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma on political science research funded by the National Science Foundation. Coburn enjoyed some success in the past year limiting what kind of political science research could be funded. The reporter in me immediately wanted to ask Senator Coburn, “Gee, what possible interest could a politician have in seeking to limit what scholars might investigate about politicians?” The researcher in me wondered about what interest the government has in limiting how much we can learn about how democracy works and how we might make it work better.

Thankfully, from my extremely biased point of view, the limitations on NSF-funding of political science research are gone for now—see this excellent recap over at the great Mischiefs of Faction blog.

Relatedly, the New York Times’ columnist Nick Kristof recently wrote a column bemoaning what he felt was a lack of engagement in the real world from scholars. While scholars can certainly do more and do better to bring what they’ve learned to a wider audience of policymakers and folks in the general public, there have been enough responses that have exposed how ridiculous his argument was—in terms of whether it was true, whether he understands what faculty do, and whether he did the requisite amount of work any journalist should want to do before making a claim in print or on the air—that I won’t directly add to the pile of stuff raising great questions about his column.

Instead, I will use his call for professors to engage more to pivot to my second example: the recent kerfuffle over the FCC’s interest in learning about what news organizations cover and whether what they cover help meet the information needs people have to function well in a democracy.

The attacks on the literature review and proposed pilot study of news once again seek to tell scholars what they should not study. Some folks like Cal Thomas think that the study is a potential precursor to government monitoring of conservative news outlets, others like Rush Limbaugh have been far more pejorative. Others still have said that we already know the answers to these questions and so there is no use pursuing them.

One of my colleagues at Wisconsin, Lew Friedland, is an author of the literature review and participant in the design of the proposed pilot study. Read his great response in today’s Monkey Cage blog at the Washington Post.

To be sure, we do know a great deal about how newsrooms operate, just as we know more than a fair amount about what people know about politics. Still, as the ecology of the news environment changes (see Sue Robinson’s great work) and as investigations into what we really know and how our knowledge about current affairs and the machinations of government matters, it is clear there is more work to be done.

As scholars like the excellent Arthur Lupia begin to ask serious questions about what kind of knowledge actually helps people and scholars like Friedland investigate what kind of information is being delivered in print, online, on TV, and on the radio, we have the potential to enter a whole era of scholarship pushing forward the long tradition of research examining how differences in the kind of information presented by news organizations affects public knowledge, preferences, associations, and behaviors. It would be a mistake to say scholars shouldn’t pursue this line of inquiry just as it would be a mistake to say that the government should have no interest in supporting it.

It is important to know things. It is important to be able to explain how we know what we claim to know. Journalists do this on deadline every day. Their work is vital to the American experiment. Scholars have a longer time horizon and have the ability to provide more detailed accounts of why things happen the way they do. We need both ways of knowing.

Indeed, it is heartening to see the growth in importance of outlets like the The Monkey Cage, the new venture at the New York Times that will employ scholars like Brendan Nyhan and Lynn Vavreck, and burgeoning efforts from journalists like Ezra Klein. What isn’t so heartening is the recent cacophonous chorus of complaints claiming that knowing how politics and the media work is a bad idea.