Political Science Graduates As Political Reporters

by John Sides on July 10, 2013 · 9 comments

in Political Science and Journalism

As the criticism of our current state of journalism and the current state of journalism education mounts, we ask a simple question: Could political science graduates do a better job of providing political reporting than graduates with journalism degrees? Although we do not test this question empirically, a review of the extant literature suggests that political science departments and curricula have the potential to foster graduates that have a high level of political knowledge, political judgment, and critical thinking skills. These skills are essential for political reporters if they are to wade through political spin, manipulation, and misdirection.

Secondly, if political science graduates are indeed more qualified to provide political reporting to US citizens and to reenergize American democracy, would media executives be willing to hire such graduates absent a degree in journalism? This question we do examine empirically. With a survey of current media executives utilizing a battery of questions assessing their willingness to hire nonjournalism graduates, we are pleased to find an openness on the part of media executives to hire political science graduates to do their political reporting, even if such graduates do not possess a degree in journalism.


That is from a new article (ungated) by Matthew Manweller and Ken Harvey.  Their account gels with growing interest in journalism schools in teaching subject area expertise—see, for example, this Carnegie initiative as well as the Columbia Journalism School’s curriculum for the M.A. in journalism and for M.A. students concentrating in politics.  It also gels with (and cites) my piece with Brendan Nyhan on how political science can help journalists and Greg Marx’s piece on “embracing the wonk.”

To be sure, the majority of media executives in Manweller and Harvey’s survey do not see subject area expertise in political science as a prerequisite to political reporting: about 4 in 10 agree that a political science degree is needed to do political reporting.  Indeed, more of them appear to value practical experience in politics or government.  But clearly there is a sizable group that desire subject-specific knowledge in political science.  This one quote from a Kansas newspaper editor was particularly striking:

Mass communications students I’ve employed seem to lack a general knowledge of how government works. They, at first, seem overwhelmed by the detail they must quickly assimilate in order to adequately report what is happening on their beat. It often takes as long as two years to get a new reporter up to speed on how to cover a government beat. I don’t expect a mass com grad to know it all, but when I have to explain the difference between a city manager and a mayor, I begin to doubt a reporter’s ability to make sense of the complicated beat government can be.

{ 9 comments }

shaftoe July 10, 2013 at 4:23 pm

the inability to write well might be a drawback.

http://chronicle.com/article/10-Tips-on-How-to-Write-Less/124268/

Cathie July 10, 2013 at 5:36 pm

YES. I never understood why specialization wasn’t a requirement in journalism. I’m not a plumber, so why would I think I could write about plumbing? Why should someone who hasn’t developed expertise in an area be paid to write about that area? One needs only to look at Fox News to understand the consequences of not knowing what you’re reporting about.

Chaz July 10, 2013 at 6:34 pm

I’m with you on the importance of subject area knowledge and the media’s general lack of it, but,

“a political science degree is needed to do political reporting”

That’s getting completely out of hand. Subject area knowledge does not equate to a formal degree in a subject. A political science degree (actually the four years leading up to it) is useful, the the knowledge can be attained other ways.

Nadia Hassan July 10, 2013 at 9:04 pm

I think some coursework could be desirable, but I think familiarity and desire is more important than fulfilling a curricula per se. Some of the journalists who are informed on these matters like Dave Leonhardt, Matt Yglesias, and Chris Hayes were in other fields as undergrads.

LFC July 11, 2013 at 11:10 am

On a quick reading, this post and the Mannweller & Harvey article it references don’t mention a basic difference between journalism and some other professions: namely, despite the existence of journalism schools and journalism degrees, journalism is one of the relatively few ‘high-status’ (for lack of a better phrase) fields for which no specific subject-matter or graduate training is required. Plenty of people have become excellent journalists after, e.g., working on college newspapers — and their undergrad degrees might have been in anything (or anything liberal-arts-ish). Some very good political reporters probably followed this path. As someone who is not a journalist, I happen to think it’s a good thing that, despite increasing ‘professionalization’, one can still become a journalist without any specific subject-matter or graduate training. The ability to write well and learn quickly are probably what matter most for a journalist, not the possession of a degree in a particular subject. We do not expect, and we should not expect, journalists to be experts in the way scholars are. Journalists will helped by being informed about scholarly work, and sites like The Monkey Cage do good work in furthering that aim, but it’s a mistake to want to turn journalists into scholars. Journalism and scholarship are different activities.

LFC July 11, 2013 at 11:12 am

correction: “Journalists will be helped…”

Matthew Shugart July 14, 2013 at 7:04 pm

Not un-gated, and evidently not available to us UC folks. Too bad, as this is something I’ve long been keenly interested in.

John Sides July 14, 2013 at 7:36 pm

Matthew: It was ungated and then it wasn’t. I’ve been in touch to try to re-ungate it.

Walt Borges July 24, 2013 at 10:56 pm

As a former journalist who turned to political science because of what I couldn’t say as a reporter, I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding about what modern journalism is.

First, there are many political reporters at all levels of coverage who do have substantial political science training, but these skills and knowledge often go to waste because providing accurate and tested knowledge is not the goal of news organizations.
The imagined goal of providing the public with information citizens need to know is attractive to most journalists who see journalism as a vocation rather than as a paycheck, but that goal was always more aspirational than definitive when it came to actual coverage. The news media seek first and foremost to attract readers and viewers to bolster the advertising revenues — this has been an almost exclusive model of news as a business since the 1980s.

Part of that consumer-maximizing business model is to personalize and dramatize news coverage rather than provide complicated analysis. That’s not we do as political scientists. We seek to test our hypotheses, and you can see from the experience of Nate Silver at NYT how that goes over with some of the traditional pundits and reporters. I would offer in balance that much of what goes on in political journalism fills the void that we create as political scientists — the refusal to ask for interpretations from those involved in the process or from those observing it.

Second, there is often little practical knowledge about sausage-making among newly minted PhDs. I spent 20 years covering the legal system in Texas and I was continually amazed every fall by the arrival in county courthouse of big firm associates trailing behind law firm runners. These graduates of the mighty and prestigious law schools could debate constitutional doctrine and legal intricacies for days on end, yet they had no knowledge of how to file a lawsuit. They learned that from the runners. My experience as a beat reporter is that reporting involves the creation of intricate relationships with key players in the game, a knowledge of rules and processes, and an understanding of the institutions and their bureaucracies. This takes time — lots of time. Beat reporters do not arrive with a network of sources. They build them over months and years. A knowledge of political science is not going to help with that. It is not enough to see the forest if you are a political journalist; you must be able to talk to the trees. Where political science contributes to political reporting, and vice versa, is in providing different analytical approaches to bring new information to bear on a story/hypothesis and identify the impossible and improbable.

Third, as political scientists we model — hence we simplify. Journalists look at the whole, including the broad context. Simplification is achieved by what a journalist leaves out and by the inverted pyramid form — important stuff first, and if the editor cuts the supporting evidence – well, so be it. That’s not to say this is the best way of doing business, it’s just the traditional way.

So yes, by all means fire up those new programs in political science and journalism, but make sure, as noted above, that the graduates know how to write, how to network and how to talk to those within the political process.

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