THE BLOG

How Political Science Can Help Journalism

04/18/2011 02:50 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2011
  • Brendan Nyhan Assistant Professor of Government at Dartmouth College

I have an article in the new issue of The Forum with John Sides of George Washington University and The Monkey Cage about how reporters can use political science to inform and improve their reporting. One problem we focus on is coverage that exaggerates the effects of events on public opinion -- a familiar theme here and on my own blog:

A third way in which political science can help reporters is by enabling them to debunk spin about the effects of some event or action... [A] lot of widely-covered events simply do not affect election outcomes or presidential approval. This perspective contrasts with that of both politicians and journalists. Politicians and other political actors are continually trying to hype certain events as "game-changers" even though the actual effects of the events are likely to be quite limited. Unfortunately, reporters often adopt these frames in their own reporting, or just quote spin and counter-spin without clarifying the likely result of the event. Although covering events in this way may help create interest, it misleads readers about the factors that drive political outcomes...

To be clear, we are not recommending that journalists refuse to cover events such as candidate debates or that journalists must always quote a political scientist expressing skepticism about the significance of these events. It is simply a question of framing the importance of an event differently. Events are not important because they are likely to be "game-changers," but because political candidates and leaders treat those events as important. This approach enables reporters to frame the stakes more realistically. Given the evidence from previous presidential debates, a presidential candidate who hopes to change the dynamic of a campaign in a debate is likely to fail. Using political science research in this way can help journalists to puncture spin and reveal the limitations of political strategy, treating the statements of politicians, candidates, campaign consultants, and other elites with a skepticism that is backed by hard data.

The full article can be downloaded here from The Forum (free registration required) or you can get the PDF directly from my academic website.