Posts Tagged ‘journalism’

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.


Why Journalists Need Math: Knockout Edition

November 27, 2013 Leave a comment

Jamelle Bouie has a great post explaining why the recent media apoplexy over the “knockout game” is contributing to a panic over a growing trend that is neither growing nor a trend. As he notes,

 it’s worth emphasizing the broad picture. Overall, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2012 crime report, there were an estimated 127,577 assaults with “hands and fists” in American cities with more than 250,000 people, a 0.7 percent increase from the previous year. The “knockout game” may or may not be a new phenomenon, but with a few instances out of tens of thousands of assaults, it’s not a trend, and media outlets shouldn’t treat it as one. A few teens may describe their behavior as a game, but to hold them up as signs of a crime wave is to cherry-pick data and mislead the audience. A little incredulity, in other words, would go a long way.

It is yet another reason more journalists need to follow Matt Waite’s advice from his wonderful piece at Nieman Lab and realize that they are not inherently bad at math. Rather, they just need to spend a bit more time working to learn it.

Update: Apparently, a lawmaker in my state (Wisconsin) is considering proposing a bill to increase the penalty for perpetrators of violent crimes that are also the knockout game (h/t Megan Duncan).  This potential “solution” is in greater search of a problem than proposed solutions to voter fraud, which occurs about as frequently as alien abduction.

Not News, Not Journalism, Not Anything of Value

October 3, 2012 1 comment

There are lots of things to say about The Daily Caller’s release and reporting and Hannity’s televised reveal of the (not-at-all) SHOCKING video of not-yet-President Obama giving a speech to a predominantly black audience in 2007 at Hampton University. After reading Carlson’s Daily Caller article in which he claims that Obama uses an “accent he almost never adopts in public” (except here and, according to Rush Limbaugh, here and here) and Hannity’s yelling at Juan Williams over Hannity’s apoplexy that Obama’s voice sounds different than usual in the video, one could introduce Carlson and Hannity to the concept of code-switching among many, many, other things.

While there are other important issues that this whole deal raises in terms of race in America and white privilege, for instance, I am not an expert in those areas; I want to stick to areas that I know well when posting in this space. I want to call attention how The Daily Caller’s decision to “release” the video, their reporting about the video, and Hannity’s show covering the release of the video are an affront to journalism.

Hannity and Carlson both read Obama’s mind to then directly contradict what Barack Obama said in his speech with what they asserted were “facts” about his “real” intent.  Hannity and Carlson used evidence not related to their argument to “prove” their argument.

Reporting the Olds and not the News

Most of this video has been online for years; a transcript of the prepared remarks was also available, though Obama deviated from the script. Carlson argued that the deviations were important, telling, and disgusting.  Of course, Tucker Carlson himself covered the speech (well, he reported on it; he was not there covering it) back in 2007. The “shout out” to Jeremiah Wright was named one of Obama’s top gaffes of the 2008 election by Politico.  What is new?  Only the items below; claims that were ignited by Carlson, stoked by Drudge, and fanned by Hannity.

Mind Reading and the Telling of Direct Lies

Carlson claims that the real reason Obama is giving the speech is to tell the audience, “They don’t like you because they are black. That is the theme of the speech from front to back, from beginning to end.”  It is really impressive of Carlson to read Barack Obama’s mind.  This is especially impressive because Carlson is able to read Obama’s mind despite what Obama actually said in the speech!

As ABC’s Jake Tapper reported (I noticed that NBC’s Today did so too this morning), Obama explicitly says to the same crowd in the same speech that race is not a factor in his anger at the government over the response to Hurricane Katrina.  Obama said that he thought the Bush administration’s “incompetence” was “colorblind” and was not about race.  That is an explicit rejection of the entire thesis of Carlson and Hannity’s absurd exercise – even though Carlson views Obama’s comments about New Orleans (including the direct claims that the government’s failures are not racially motivated) as “remarkable moment, and not just for its resemblance to Kanye West’s famous claim that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

Umm, no. If it is remarkable, it is because it makes no such claim at all. In fact, it directly rejects such claims (see Ta-Nehisi Coates’ fascinating essay ).

Leaving aside the wisdom of Carlson’s use of the word “whipping” when describing his view that then-Candidate Obama was trying to build “race hatred and fear,” in his speech – where is the fear? Obama does not tell the audience to fear the government, to fear whites, or to fear anything (except, perhaps – if you really want to stretch – complacency).  Carlson seems to want to argue that Obama is race-baiting and trying to make people afraid without evidence that he is doing so and despite actual words from the actual speech that explicitly state he is not doing so.

Obfuscation and Totally Unfair Comparisons

Journalism is about reporting the verifiable truth, not providing falsely equivalent facts for readers, viewers, and listeners to sift through.  Yet, Carlson’s reporting on the Hampton University speech is SHOCKING (sorry) with respect to how facts are used.  Candidate Obama complained that the Stafford Act provision requiring a 10 percent local match of federal dollars to rebuild, in this case, New Orleans, had not been waived even though it was waved after 9/11 and Hurricane Andrew.  That was a reasonable question to ask.

Carlson calls it “basic dishonesty” because the “federal government had sent at least $110 billion” to help with Katrina.  Carlson’s fact is true, but it has nothing at all to do with the fact about the Stafford Act that Obama presented to his audience.  Obama asked about the basic fairness of waiving the Stafford Act requirement for one hurricane (and 9/11) and not waving it for another.  That is unrelated to whether the federal government gave money to help with rebuilding efforts.

What is worse, Carlson goes on to say that a little while after Obama’s speech, (after Obama’s speech), the Bush administration sent another nearly $7 billion to locales affected by Katrina with “no strings attached.” Stafford waivers did come later as well, which Carlson noted in a lazy way, claiming that the waivers came at (here at the actual) times.

Is Carlson angry at Obama for not appreciating something that had not happened yet?  I think he is and I think that that is actual “basic dishonesty.”

Another unfair comparison is Carlson’s use of government aid in response to 9/11.  “Compare this,” Carlson writes (referring to the $110 billion in aid given to Katrina-affected areas) “to the mere $20 billion that the Bush administration pledged to New York after Sept. 11.”  First, this leaves aside other money pledged to the victims of 9/11 and their families, but more importantly, it implies that the cleanup and rebuilding of the horrific destruction of the Twin Towers is directly comparable to the cleanup and rebuilding costs for an entire city; indeed, an entire gulf region, after a devastating hurricane.  This is a ridiculous claim and a wholly unfair comparison.

Why is it Terrible to Remember History?

Carlson closes his Daily Caller post noting Obama’s veering off-script to conclude his speech by saying that “we won’t forget what happened 19 months ago, or 15 years ago, or 300 years ago.” Carlson writes, “Three hundred years ago. It’s a reference the audience understood.”

What is Carlson implying here?  That the audience understands Katrina happened 19 months from the time of the speech, the L.A. riots 15 years prior, and slavery 300 years before?  If so, that’s great, he is praising the audience for understanding history.  Of course, I suspect (but can’t know for sure) that Carlson is not implying this.  Carlson’s interview on Hannity suggests that Carlson rejects Obama’s references to race (though again, Obama did not make them in the way Carlson claimed) as destructive, mean-spirited, manipulative, and divisive.  I’m not so sure it is a bad idea to recall the effects of a devastating storm, riot, or national scar.  What is there to fear from recalling history and then engaging in a debate about what historical events are analogous to today, affect what is happening today, and might help us understand what to do tomorrow?  We certainly don’t have to agree about what role racism and slavery played in these and other matters to have productive conversations about them.

He Has Seen the Media and it isn’t Him

At one point last night, Sean Hannity said that he hoped “the media” would start to cover Obama’s speech from 5 years ago.  If only he had a radio show, a television show, a website, a friend named Tucker who worked for a media outlet at another website to talk with on television, and a web-muckracker named Matt to promote Hannity’s multi-platform megaphone…