Saturday, June 05, 2010

Political reporter -- meet political scientist

My thanks to fellow St. Francis High School Class of 1985 alum F. Scott Jewell for calling this article to my attention -- as it points up that political reporters and political scientists ought to more carefully examine the work the other does.

In doing so, they might find more appreciation for what each does, and they might work more effectively together.

In a somewhat humorous, somewhat sarcastic jab at that idea,'s Christopher Bean examines how the political scientist might have written a journalistic piece examining the recent problems befuddling the Obama administration.

Sure, that story lacks some of the zing expected of today's journalism, but it provides a bit more context than you will see in too many news pieces.

Journalists turn to academics on a regular basis as a source for authoritative and objective information on a particular topic. But in my opinion not enough journalists truly appreciate the differences between the two disciplines, and I certainly know that not enough academicians take the time to truly understand how the mainstream media work.

One of the reasons -- not necessarily the most important -- is the dissemination demands placed upon the industry. Consider the 2008 presidential election. The mainstream media, the bloggers and other professional communicators needed to tell their audience what was happening right now while attempting to help them instantaneously understand the why behind the what.

But that news cycle quickly is replaced by Barack Obama's victory and beginning the transition to a new president. Everything is bite sized and designed to be ingested right now, knowing that another bite-size morsel is coming.

Political scientists are just now beginning to see their analysis of the election make it into print publications. Using a more scientific, careful, pragmatic and analytical approach, these academicians are examining small slices of the large picture. They are not supplying us with bite-sized pieces; they are delivering a hearty, well-balanced meal that includes your basic food groups. Not quite fast food.

Moreover, the review of each professionals' work is different. The journalist's work is examined for factual or grammatical errors, or for signs of bias. It is a report telling us what has happened within this news cycle. It is, as one of my colleagues so often says, the first draft of history. Deeper connections are not being made with space or time considerations being among the most important reasons.

But the political scientist's work is viewed through the lens of the author's ability to link past events to current ones; whether an appropriate hypothesis or research question is put forward, then answered; and whether the information advances the overall knowledge of the academy. Complicated (to the layman) statistical analyses often are run to determine if the researcher's findings are "significant."

Reading just those few paragraphs, you begin to see why these two sets of professionals could struggle to appreciate each other. But I think you also will agree that when you examine some of the best reporting that is available, there is a "let's take a deep breath, chill out and find out what this story really means" approach.

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