Help Design a Syllabus for Political Reporters

by John Sides on May 9, 2012 · 30 comments

in Political Science and Journalism

John Wihbey of Journalist’s Resource emails:

We’re currently putting together a model political reporting syllabus for journalism schools (both covering governance issues and campaign issues), and it occurred to me that it would be great to reach out to you and see what key articles, studies and materials that every political reporter should read in such a class and ideas that he/she should be familiar with. Any thoughts on this?

I welcome suggestions in comments.


Andreas Moser May 9, 2012 at 9:34 am

Ask a lawyer when covering law stories.

I stopped counting the instances when legal facts or cases were misrepresented in quality newspapers.

Jim May 9, 2012 at 9:39 am

My biggest gripe is that journalists covering Congress tend to not understand congressional procedure. They should, at minimum, read through Walter Oleszek’s ‘Congressional Procedures and the Policy Process’ so that their reporting can actually reflect what each vote and motion they report on actually means.

Spencer Fleury May 9, 2012 at 9:43 am

Political reporters absolutely need a reasonable grounding in economics. Economic arguments are often central to any political campaign; indeed, it’s often difficult to separate economics and politics in a broader sense.

I’ve found that most reporters don’t seem to know much about how the economy works, and will often hide behind the reality that their audience doesn’t either. That approach has not served us well, to say the least.

politicalEconomist May 9, 2012 at 9:47 am

Basic social choice theory:
- an understanding of the fundamental problems of preference aggregation.
- there is no such thing as “the will” of the people.

Political History:
- there is no such thing as what “the founders” wanted.

John Sides May 9, 2012 at 9:51 am

Helpful ideas so far. Specific articles or books would be particularly helpful.

Peter Hovde May 9, 2012 at 10:08 am

“Logic of Collective Action”
“Logic of Congressional Action”

Peter Hovde May 9, 2012 at 10:09 am

“Legislative Deferrals”

Jim May 9, 2012 at 10:21 am

The Myth of the Independent Voter, Introduction and Conclusion (at least.)
“The Two Faces of Issue Voting”
“What’s the Matter With ‘What’s the Matter With Kansas’?”

Scott Gehlbach May 9, 2012 at 10:29 am

Ken Shepsle’s Analyzing Politics, on the principle that political reporters should understand the basics of social-choice theory and the role that institutions play.

Matt May 9, 2012 at 10:32 am

The early chapters of Zaller’s “The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion.”
Lewis-Beck et al.’s “The American Voter Revisited.”

In general, it might be best to find comprehensive review articles on subjects that political reporters are likely to engage.

Jack C. May 9, 2012 at 10:48 am

Kaufmann, Petrocik, and Shaw’s “Unconventional Wisdom: Facts and Myths about American Voters”

Campbell’s “The American Campaign”

Every issue of the Annual Review of Political Science (not too tech-y, basically good lit reviews of major topics)

Nadia Hassan May 9, 2012 at 11:02 am

Okay I know I gush about it way too much already and bring it up so often that my admiration might warrant derision, but I sincerely believe that political journalism could gain a lot from incorporating The Message Matters’ framework into reporting.

There are several assets to it, I think. When I look at campaign trail coverage, there have been a couple of things that have stood out to me:
-Many political reporters rely on anecdotes or top of the line analysis in looking at the economy, but fail to recognize the importance of the trends as being predictive. For example, Michael Tomasky took all the wrong lessons out of Nate Silver’s analysis of models and asserted the President should run a campaign based on distractions, likability, and avoid something fundamentals based. You also noted the focus on levels in Ron Klain’s piece when the fundamentals don’t doom the President necessarily. So, the fact that the relationship between the economy and election results is covered and Vavreck extensively discusses the idea that trends predict outcomes. Stan Greenberg said that Vavreck’s book inspired him to better appreciate the fundamentals
-She is also very useful for getting people to focus on and hone in on what matters

Drew May 9, 2012 at 11:29 am

Hans Noel, “Ten Things Political Scientists Know that You Don’t.” The Forum. Volume 8, Issue 3.

John Wihbey May 9, 2012 at 11:35 am

This has been hugely helpful so far. Many thanks for all the suggestions!

Frederic Thys May 9, 2012 at 12:11 pm

Howard Kurtz’s The Spin Cycle

Scott C. May 9, 2012 at 12:14 pm

Jacobs and Page’s 2005 “Who Influences US Foreign Policy?” I think it’s a great primer on understanding both who governs (is it business, policy experts, the public etc.?) and how different types of elites fit together. Of course the results also have very interesting theoretical implications for liberalism and democratic theory. Of course Zaller is great, and I’d also suggest looking at the literature on “on-line processing” when it comes to attitude formation about political candidates.

Nick Baumann May 9, 2012 at 12:24 pm

Definitely the 10 things/Hans Noel paper listed above. Also:
10 things we think we know, but really don’t:
7 stories Politico fears (scroll down to the second list):

Bill Harshaw May 9, 2012 at 12:58 pm
Denny Wilkins May 9, 2012 at 1:37 pm

1. No dark garages at night.
2. Expending shoe leather still matters.
3. Notebooks do not have batteries.
4. Never lie to your editor.
5. Defend your readers: Tell them the best truth possible.

Nathaniel Beck May 9, 2012 at 1:48 pm

Not sure this is what is wanted, but how bout some statistics. What does it mean for something to be “significant” or not? Why is the +/- 2 (or 3) percent margin of error in reporting a poll result a huge underestimate. The basic causality argument. For the latter, one of the early chapters of Morgan and Winship. For the former, perhaps at least a chapter on Freedman, et al on significance testing.

Joe Bruns May 9, 2012 at 1:50 pm

So many to choose from, but on the list would be:
The Making of a President, 1960
A People’s History of the United States
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, ’72
All the King’s Men
Henry III, IV and V
The Path to Power
Conscience of a Conservative
AP Stylebook
Jim Lehrer’s Rules of Journalism
Political Polling in the Digital Age

Liz May 9, 2012 at 5:49 pm

NCPP, 20 questions a journalist should ask about poll results:

Paul Gronke May 9, 2012 at 10:03 pm

Journalism schools should have a basic requirement in either statistics, “institutionalism” (historical, rational choice, take your flavor), or research design (qualitative, experimental, take your choice). Any understanding of fundamental forces in society and cause and effect (and lack of cause and effect) would do a lot to help reporters sort the wheat from the chaff.

Media companies should have sabbatical programs that allow practicing journalists to pick up these skills once they are seasoned in the field.

And academics need to develop these programs. I have some ideas on that front.

BJK May 10, 2012 at 3:54 am

To those very good suggestions, let me humbly suggest:
Media, The Second God by Tony Schwartz
You Are The Message by Roger Ailes
The Way Things Ought To Be by Rush Limbaugh
Trail Fever by Michael Lewis

Ryan May 10, 2012 at 10:05 am

I largely agree with a number of the books suggested already, namely:

1) The Logic of Collective Action
2) Zaller’s book, The Origin and Nature of Mass Opinion
3) Lewis-Beck’s The American Voter Revisited
4) The Myth of the Independent Voter

I would add to this list:

5) Aldrich’s Why Parties?
6) Erikson, MacKuen, and Stimson’s The Macro Polity
7) Lupia and McCubbins’ The Democratic Dillema

Brendan Nyhan May 10, 2012 at 11:38 am

John is too modest to post it, but he and I wrote a Forum article on how political science can help inform journalism:

Fr. May 10, 2012 at 5:34 pm

Princeton Readings in American Politics. Great sampler.

Alternatively, a shorter selection (at Session VII):

– Larry Bartels, Unequal Democracy. The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age
(Princeton University Press, 2008), ch. 5.
– Mark Franklin, “Quantitative Analysis,” in della Porta and Keating, Approaches and Methodologies in the Social Sciences (Cambridge University Press, 2008), ch. 13.
– Andrew Gelman (and colleagues), Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State. Why
Americans Vote the Way They Do (Princeton University Press, 2008), ch. 6.

patrick mccann May 11, 2012 at 8:00 am

For me, some of the most important books here would be “Constructing the Political Spectacle” by Edelman or “Power Projections” by Entman, and finally “Antidiplomacy” by Der Derian. Any of these books would add something thoroughly missing from the collection of works listed above.

patrick mccann May 11, 2012 at 8:05 am

A different theme from my previous comment, Red State, Blue State by Andrew Gelman is a spectacular work, and has lots of ungated pdf’s on which it is based.

Joe Bruns May 12, 2012 at 4:03 pm

There are may fine books suggested here, and all could be a useful part of a reading list. But I think a lot of the suggested books here skew toward political science rather than political journalism. While a knowledge of political science, as well as economics, statistics, etc. are essential, people in those fields are not particularly known to be adept in doing what a political reporter must do: interpret and explain for a general audience. The best (or at least the most renowned) political journalists are first and foremost good writers. IMHO

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