Posts Tagged ‘political knowledge’
If the press exists to inform the public, how can its performance be assessed? Journalists often respond to critique by noting that partisans on both sides are unhappy with their reporting. However, this sort of reflexive framework, a fundamentally moon-based journalism, can’t really tell us anything about how the public has been served. A better way is to take a sun-based approach, and figure out what news organizations have actually informed the public about by measuring public knowledge.
This isn’t as easy as it might sound, and there are a variety of approaches in political science to measuring political and civic knowledge (and other kinds of public knowledge in other areas). Large-scale surveys typically use true/false or multiple choice questions by necessity, which have the down side of allowing educated guesses, or at least giving an additional prompt to recall information that might otherwise have been inaccessible in memory. For example, this Buzzfeed survey, while illuminating, doesn’t tell us anything beyond whether people think they heard about a story, which could be accurate or could be the result of a bunch of cognitions running together. Another way of doing this is with open-ended questions that ask respondents to describe what they know about a particular topic, but which give them as little as possible in the prompt.
This is a particularly important question for examinations of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but also for all elections going forward in liberal democracies. The reason is “fake news,” a term that in the last few weeks has come to represent misinformation, conspiracy theories, propaganda, hoaxes, and even parody to a certain extent. Although the political commentary community doesn’t have a great conceptual handle on “fake news” yet, we do know the election was subject to both widespread hacking and leaking of private information, and several stories that compounded upon themselves in partisan information loops fed by motivated reasoning. Occasionally these stories came up for air, but it’s reasonably likely that their main aggregate effect was simply to toxify the entire news environment.
Unlike some of my other question generation posts, this is a question I’m actually planning a study around. What I’m really interested in is what information people had available when certain story concepts were primed by events in the campaign, or at least what they have that can still be primed now. Specifically, I’m going to use open-ended questions to ask survey participants to describe in as much depth and details as they can three “scandal” stories each about the two major party candidates: for Hillary Clinton, her emails, her paid speeches, and the Clinton Foundation; and for Donald Trump, his tax returns, accusations of sexual assault against him, and the Trump Foundation. I’ll also ask about two fact-focused post-election topics: the percentage of the popular vote won by each candidate, and how turnout compares with that of 2012. After those knowledge questions, I’ll have an extensive battery of media and information behavior questions, political attitudes and behaviors, and a couple public opinion perceptions.
These results could be paired with content analysis (or reports such as this one from the Shorenstein Center on campaign news coverage) to see how well knowledge matches news volume, but I expect them to be interesting in their own right. The preliminary question that got me thinking about this study back in October was whether people distinguish the two ongoing Clinton stories involving email — the server she used as Secretary of State, and the hacks of the DNC and John Podesta. I’ve got five dollars American that says that on average they don’t.
Filed: Super Special Questions || 10:30, December 14 || No Comments »
This is admittedly not a great research question, but it’s a fundamentally important one to grounding research on the role of journalism in a mature democracy. It implies some key research questions — for example, what journalists think journalism is for, how the public understands the role of journalism, etc. — but this is conceptually a bigger question that the major institutions of the press have proven ideologically unable to grapple with.
The reason why this is so important is that an unmoored press is as likely to damage a democratic society as to serve it, and a press pointed at the wrong goals can be just as bad. The press, by which I mean the national political press, is a political institution, the only extra-governmental institution mentioned in the Constitution. But also, it doesn’t want to acknowledge that status — for example, Michael Wolff, who declared that “stenographer is what you’re supposed to be” after receiving criticism for a feckless interview with Steve Bannon, recently mocked the idea that journalism is necessarily political as a “millennial view.” Instead, the press defines itself by its reflexive ideology — that is, getting between two conflicting poles as much as possible. In an electoral campaign, that bipolar structure is essentially a given.
Placing itself conspicuously in the middle makes things very easy, and is why we have so much “he said/she said” journalism. But it also detaches the press from the idea that it plays its own unique role in our democracy. As such, journalists become predisposed to disclaim any actual impact on things that tilt toward one pole or the other. Thus they can claim at the same time that they successfully informed the public about, for example, Donald Trump’s conflicts of interest, and that the choices they made didn’t affect the outcome of the election — or in other words: “Media reported all the terrible things that make us angry about him. Voters didn’t care.”
The enormous newshole modern news organizations have to fill makes it trivial to say you’ve “reported” or “covered” something. What we know looking at the aggregate is that the Clinton email server story received three times as much network TV coverage as all policy issues combined during 2016; all that reporting can be factually correct and still present an incorrect picture to the public. To wit, the incredible word cloud based on Gallup’s summer surveys, mapping things respondents had recently heard about the candidates, may be the rosetta stone of the 2016 election (n.b., “email” defined Clinton in late 2015 as well).
The need for a bipolar structure also manifests in other important ways. Jay Rosen has written recently about what he calls “accusation-based” vs. “evidence-based” reporting. Though he was reacting to coverage of Trump’s false claim of millions of illegal votes being cast for Clinton, it was a story that fit cleanly into the press’s campaign season mindset — a partisan makes an accusation, they report it, counter-partisans respond, and they report that. It is fundamentally detached — to use another Rosen term, a “view from nowhere.” The problems with this are self-evident: If you know your claims will be repeated credulously by the press, you have no incentive not to lie like crazy. It’s especially insidious in a context like this one, whereby democratic principles come to be seen through the zero-sum lens of partisan politics.
But strangely, we can also see the press react to a unipolar environment with more willingness to be adversarial. In mid-November, we saw a mini boom of stories addressing Trump’s unprecedented conflicts of interest and, indeed, nascent pre-inauguration corruption. These stories were known during the campaign and could just as easily have been front-paged then; they weren’t, in part because Clinton didn’t make specific campaign issues of them.
In all these situations, the press is taking an effectively nihilistic approach, as reflected quite clearly in the centrist consensus that Jonathan Chait critiques in his David Brooks-focused assessment of the mainstream, establishment opinion press. But the unmoored desires of Brooks and his peers to put themselves in the center regardless of its location isn’t a symptom of our times — see The Washington Post’s Paul Taylor from 1990:
Sometimes I worry that my squeamishness about making sharp judgments, pro or con, makes me unfit for the slam-bang world of daily journalism. Other times I conclude that it makes me ideally suited for newspapering– certainly for the rigors and conventions of modern ‘objective’ journalism. For I can dispose of my dilemmas by writing stories straight down the middle. I can search for the halfway point between the best and the worst that might be said about someone (or some policy or idea) and write my story in that fair-minded place. By aiming for the golden mean, I probably land near the best approximation of truth more often than if I were guided by any other set of compasses– partisan, ideological, psychological, whatever… Yes, I am seeking truth. But I’m also seeking refuge. I’m taking a pass on the toughest calls I face.
There are a million more places I could take this, but it’s meant to be a philosophical question/blog post, and not a book. So I’m going to lay down some normative markers that I think ought to guide a period of introspection for major American press institutions:
- A free press exists to present important truths to a democratic polity.
- Truth exists at both the macro and micro levels — that is, just because you put several individual truths together, you haven’t necessarily presented a larger truth, and may have presented a larger falsehood.
- Partisan institutions don’t have a first-order interest in truth, which doesn’t necessarily mean what they say isn’t true.
- The public broadly lacks not only time-sensitive policy knowledge, but also fundamental civics knowledge.
The question then becomes, in light of these factors, what means ought the press use to achieve its ends? To be sure, major news organizations are facing institutional challenges for which they have few answers: traditional revenue streams evaporating, historically low levels of trust from the public, loss of their gatekeeping oligopoly. But they also face challenges to which they have simply failed to adapt: How to handle a president-elect who doesn’t need you, and who broadcasts lies on a regular basis? How to respond quickly to new information with both context and clarity, rather than stenography (for example, to claims from Trump that he is “handing off” his business)? How to incorporate an understanding of the potential effects of news on public opinion, as well as the value of “partisans” in the news ecosystem? These questions all have to do with the press’s willingness to stand as its own democratic institution, rather than primarily a reflexive one — a sun, rather than a moon. Without sunshine, this is where we are:
Filed: Super Special Questions || 13:59, December 1 || No Comments »
In this year’s MAPOR panel, Ken Blake’s presentation looked at belief that Barack Obama was born outside the United States, and Doug Hindman talked a bit about right-wing denial of the September unemployment numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Both issues are good example cases for a phenomenon that we might call belief reversion.
Filed: Super Special Questions || 19:51, November 23 || No Comments »
At MAPOR on Friday, we had another terrific session dealing with the belief gap and extremes in partisanship — a direct follow-up to the belief gap session we had in 2011. We were fortunate enough to get the entire set of participants back together, and had a big audience and a good discussion at the end.
Closing out the panel, Doug Hindman presented a nice overview of how knowledge gaps and belief gaps differ, which is really a narrow set of fairly subtle characteristics. He began his presentation by noting that he’s come more and more to see belief gaps as a particular kind of knowledge gap. Specifically, these are instances where the “knowledge” deals with politically disputed information, and where partisan elites (Doug mentioned “elected officials,” but I think we need to be able to include people like, for example, Rush Limbaugh here) make claims both supporting or denying that knowledge. Consistent with Zaller’s work on elite cuing, we should (and do) see partisans — particularly stronger and more educated partisans — taking up the incorrect beliefs put forth by their partisan elites.
Filed: Super Special Questions || 9:25, November 20 || 2 Comments »
I’ve been sitting on this post by Kevin Drum for a week trying to figure out how to get through my response to its core idea without writing 20 pages. Drum (and Ezra Klein before him) focuses on the idea that private sector workers’ envy of public sector workers’ job security is at play in people’s responses to recessions. Now, I’m not entirely sure I buy this as a central feature, given that the general public has come to bat for the public employee unions during this recent unpleasantness in Wisconsin, but this is really a jumping off point for something sort of related.
Both Drum and Klein share a chart showing changes in private and public sector employment during the Obama Administration. The public sector looks fairly flat, though gradually declining, compared with the private sector, which cratered but has been crawling back up. Since roughly March 2010, they’ve been moving toward convergence, with the exception of the one-month census hiring spike. But when you ask the public about this, or when you listen to Republicans talk about it, they have no idea what’s actually going on. So here’s where I’m going with this (and this is where I decided to just delete a lot of explanatory material):
Do people really see themselves as someday being rich?
Kind of a logical chasm there, I know. But when we hear redistributionist policies mooted in the broad political discussion, we’re often told that the general public opposes increased taxes on the upper class because their aspirational feelings are so strong that they believe they will one day be subject to those confiscatory 39% marginal rates. A similar take is that middle class people, whether they see themselves as the future-rich or not, know that it’s just not fair to raise rich people’s taxes, even if they themselves will benefit. I imagine these are very comforting explanations if you are a rich person.
But allow me to be not-at-all the first to suggest that this is the result of rank ignorance. Some of this is well documented. Last year, a CBS News/New York Times poll found that just 12% believed their taxes had been lowered by Obama — in reality, 95% of Americans’ taxes had been lowered — and that an insane 24% believed their taxes had gone up. But OK, you could call this ignorance, but you could also call it being misinformed (by, say, certain news outlets) or a descent in agnotology. There are those with political and financial interests in convincing voters that what is false is true when it comes to taxes.
So how about this: To what extent can we suppose the typical American understands what benefits he or she receives from the public sector that are paid for with tax dollars? This goes beyond the facile argument about which states pay in more or less than they get from the federal government, with tendrils reaching out to the many spots noted by Tom the Dancing Bug — call it the “Keep the Government Out of My Medicare!” problem. Can we possibly have a meaningful debate about the trade-offs in expenditures and revenues if the public has no idea what’s happening in either of those categories?