Archive | Media

Syria vs. Cyrus Redux

Readers of the blog may remember that last week as part of a Twitter discussion with Larry Sabato on how much American public opinion on Syria really mattered, I decided to look at some Google Trends data comparing searches for Syria and Miley Cyrus.  I took a bit of pounding from our readers on the use of Google Trends data to do this, but it turns out that I wasn’t the only one who had the idea to compare the two. Political scientists  and  writing in the Huffington Post compared media coverage of the two and Google Trends data. Their findings:

The odd coupling of these two sensational stories presents a relatively rare, real-time opportunity to assess two popular and closely related conventional wisdoms about the American media and public. The first holds that in their media consumption, Americans prefer entertainment over public policy; sensationalism over substance; and sex over, well, just about anything. The second holds that in order to attract consumers, market-driven media routinely under-report or ignore important issues of public policy—abdicating their responsibility to serve as a watchdog of government—in favor of serving up the steady diet of cotton candy that they believe the public wants. As it turns out, reality is less clear-cut than conventional wisdom. According to Google News, in the week starting August 25 the Syria-to-Cyrus ratio—the number of print and online stories about Syria relative to those about Miley Cyrus—was about 5.5 to 1. That is, there was about 5.5 times more coverage of Syria than of Cyrus. According to LexisNexis, TV news—specifically, ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, and NBC —had a somewhat lower Syria-to-Cyrus ratio of about 3 to 1 (351 vs. 112 stories), while major newspapers—New York Times, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post—had a much higher ratio of about 11 to 1 (252 vs. 23 stories). These outlets varied widely in their coverage, and there clearly was no shortage of news about Cyrus’s derriere. Yet, on balance, news coverage focused far more on what people arguablyneeded to know than on what—per conventional wisdom—they wanted to know.


Even with the predominance of media coverage about Syria over Cyrus last week, the Syria-to-Cyrus ratio for Americans’ Google searches was almost the inverse of the Google News ratio: about 1 to 6, or six times more searches for news about Miley Cyrus than about Syria. Score one for the conventional wisdom.

Yet public opinion data suggests that perhaps there were fewer searches for Syria because there was already a lot known about Syria:

A recent NBC News poll (8/28-8/29) shows almost 80% of the public saying that it has heard “some” or “a lot” of news about Syria’s supposed chemical weapons use. While self-reports can be somewhat inflated, the near-80% figure is the fourth highest out of 16 high-profile issues for which NBC has asked the identical question over the past two years.

If that’s not enough for you, Jake Leavy at Buzzfeed put together a whole spread of graphics comparing the two using Facebook’s New Keyword’s Insights API. I would gladly have analyzed some of this data myself – providing Facebook much needed added publicity – but alas, for now the tool is only being rolled out to selected media partners at the moment (hint, hint…).

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The Media Pounds the President: Does it Matter?

President Obama’s speech on Syria has received mostly harsh grades from the media, as has his broader policy in the region so far: if I had a dime for every comment arguing (actually, mostly just stating) the scope of the damage done to Obama, to the presidency, to the United States, to the world, etc., from his handling of the Syrian situation I would have, well, many dimes. Peter Baker’s piece in today’s NY Times sums up the critics as seeing Obama as “feckles[s]…. reactive, defensive and profoundly challenged in standing up to a dangerous world.” In the blogosphere Stu Rothenberg says the Obama administration has been “confused, erratic and in way over its head,” “nothing short of sad,” “inept.”  Joe Klein goes further, calling it “one of the more stunning and inexplicable displays of presidential incompetence  that I’ve ever witnessed.” (Given that he was around to witness Bill Clinton deal with Haiti, this is saying something; but then Klein also manages to wax nostalgic for the heyday of Henry Kissinger.)  Even the more sympathetic Ezra Klein sums it up as “less George Kennan and more Mr. Magoo.”

So: how much should Obama worry about this?

At least one study suggests, not much. Jeffrey Cohen, in his 2008 book The Presidency in the Era of 24-Hour News, found that after the 1970s, “no correlation exists between the negativity of presidential news and public approval of the president.”  Before then – Cohen’s quite comprehensive data go back to the 1940s – there was indeed a strong connection, where a negative tone in press coverage was linked to lower approval. (Richard Brody finds this too in his earlier book on Assessing the President.)

Cohen suggests a number of reasons for this disconnect, tied to the broader structure of the “presidential news system”; I will condense them to two:

(1) in the pre-Watergate era, the press coverage of the president, and of government generally, was largely positive. Thus, negative news was a credible signal for the public to follow. When a Harry Truman, or Richard Nixon, attracted negative coverage, people assumed this meant something had changed they needed to take note of. Now, pretty much all coverage of the president is negative, so the public uncouples its sense of presidential performance from news coverage. (“The regularity of negative news makes it hard for the public to tell if the bad news reflects truly bad conditions that it should pay attention to or if it merely reflects the agenda of journalists,” broadly defined.)

(2) this is buttressed by the fragmentation of the media task from broadcasting to “narrowcasting,” thanks to the rise of cable/satellite/internet, etc., along with the shopping of the interested public for news and opinion framed to suit its preferred preconceptions (Obama is good, Obama is bad…): there is less “mass” in mass media, less trust in media generally, and fewer people likely to encounter evidence that would change their mind anyway.

It is of course nearly impossible to isolate the impact of the tone of coverage, especially in one short-term discrete case; how to keep all else equal when events are shifting rapidly (see Putin 2013)? Another twist in the current situation is that the new normal of polarization – where Dems express kneejerk approval, Republicans automatic disapproval, of the president – is complicated by the fact that some of Obama’s more reliable allies on the left are dead set against war in Syria and some in the GOP for it. Still, a quick glance at RealClearPolitics’ aggregation of presidential approval polls suggests they have held steady (the shift from Labor Day to today is from 43.8 to 43.5%). Whether approval itself matters… well, that’s a post for another time!


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The writing style of aggressive business gurus

Co-blogger Henry Farrell just published an article about what he calls “our new breed of cyber-critics,” arguing that to understand their typically tech-optimistic content we need to understand their economic incentives. In the current era, Henry argues, the economic point of writing is not to get a well-paid job as a journalist or to sell lots of books but rather to make money giving paid lectures. Thus there are various large niches for writers/performers who celebrate big business and rich people (after all, these are the people who pay for most of these lectures) and various small niches for provocateurs (“trolls”) who build a name for themselves by eliciting angry reactions from public figures. Farrell is echoing an argument made by Stephen Marche in the context of celebrity historian Niall Ferguson.

This all makes sense to me, even though the argument doesn’t quite apply in my own case: I’m among the subset of intellectuals who write books and articles on the side, as an adjunct to a steady job. I do give talks at corporate events but, maybe because I don’t rely on that extra money, I haven’t felt the need to adapt my message to what I think the audience wants to hear. I’m not saying that I’m more virtuous than these other people; I’m just in a different circumstance. And, on the substance, I find Henry’s argument persuasive: earlier I objected to one of Seth Godin’s stories as being “bit too glib in treating pop success as some sort of moral arbiter, a kind of Santa Claus that punishes the bad and rewards the good.”

But here I want to talk about something slightly different, which is the annoying (to me) style of these internet business gurus: they’re always getting in your face, telling you how everything you thought was true was wrong. I can’t take being shouted at, and I get a little tired of hearing over and over again that various people, industries, etc., are dinosaurs (even if, sometimes, they are). My guess is that this aggressive style is coming from the vast supply of “business books” out there. These are books that are supposed to grab you by the lapel and never let go.

I also wonder whether there is a stylistic difference: Journalists tell stories; bloggers rant, hector, and explore. Professional journalism is closed; internet writing is open. A newspaper or magazine article is supposed to come to a pat conclusion and to demonstrate certainty. An online article can demonstrate certainty—-and, when it does, you often get that obnoxious over-certainty of Jarvis/Greenspun/etc—-but it can also reflect uncertainty and a search for truth, something you don’t find much in the professional press. Those annoying internet gurus are in some way combining the style of blogging with the assumed certainty of journalism, the worst of both worlds.

Anyway, I wonder what Henry’s thoughts are on all this, perhaps he has some insight on the connections between the style and the content of internet business writing.

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How the Media Put BPA on the Agenda in the States

This is a guest post by Simon Kiss.


Few chemicals have attracted as much media and scientific attention as bisphenol A (BPA).  This common chemical has been accused being a cause of everything from obesity to premature onset of puberty to skewing the gender ratio to cardiovascular disease.  Canada, Denmark, France, the EU and many US states have adopted measures prohibiting polycarbonate baby bottles made with BPA. And yet, reading the fine print on many of these regulatory decisions suggests massive uncertainties underlying the assertions that current exposure to BPA is harming us.  For example, see the the World Health Organization’s recent assessment here.

If the science is so conflicted, why did some jurisdictions adopt regulatory bans on products made from BPA while others did not? Before the United States ever took action at the federal level (at the request of the plastics industry, not environmental groups, mind you), Canada and a number of US state legislatures began doing so. When I initially got interested in this case, it seemed that the Canadian media were covering the issue far more than in other countries.  This proved to be the case, but I also thought that the varied legislative paths experienced in US states offered the opportunity for a natural experiment testing the effects of media coverage about BPA on whether US state legislatures considered or adopted bans on products made with BPA.

The short answer is that media attention to BPA helped initiate and sustain attempts at regulation.  Thus, BPA regulation did not follow a traditional path of diffusion—whereby one state’s actions lead other states to act similarly.  Instead, local news stories within that state helped to produce a response from state lawmakers.

My analysis—recently published here (ungated)—combines information on news stories about BPA in major daily newspapers with information on state legislative activity regarding BPA.  After account for several other factors besides media coverage I find that news stories were consistently linked to the chance that a state legislature would consider legislation banning products made with BPA.  And even though this coverage did not affect the chances that the legislature would ban BPA, in 8 of the 9 states that have banned it, the ban only passed after a previous legislative session had first considered the ban.  Thus, news coverage appears to have contributed indirectly to several outright bans.

These findings have two important lessons.  First, at the state level, the policy response to concerns about BPA is driven more by media coverage than by scientific concern.  This suggests that, second, media coverage of complex risks can drive policy-makers to action even in the absence of scientific consensus.  Thus, journalists must be cautious in describing the research—lest their coverage help to produce an overreaction to uncertain science.

We thank Mass Communications and Society and Taylor and Francis for ungating this article.  Image from North Carolina Health News.

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Symposium Magazine September 2013 issue

College For All, Or Just For Some?
Judith Sebesta
All too often, Americans see a college degree as the ultimate insurance policy for success. But we need look to a far wider range of policy and educational tools to help those without a degree.

Why Democrats Are in Trouble in 2014
David C. W. Parker
Political reporting and punditry do a poor job in forecasting election results. Here is a closer look at how a political scientist would unpack the next elections.

Weather and War, Reconsidered
Scott K. Taylor
What the calamities of the seventeenth century can teach today’s scholars about climate change, war, and policy-making.

Never Mind the Generals, Here Come the Technocrats
Thomas E. Flores
Voters across the world increasingly prefer technocrats to run affairs. Why are they so popular?

Understanding the Irrational Commuter
David M. Levinson
The increasing sophistication of data collection and analysis gives us deeper insights into human behavior — and how we make decisions about everyday travel.

From the ACLU to Spy World to Academia
Chuck McCutcheon
Law professor Tim Edgar has worked on both sides of the surveillance debate, and he sees lessons to privacy advocates and government officials alike.

Fox, Meet Hedgehog
Euny Hong
A strategic studies program at Yale revives ancient lessons about statecraft, and its popularity is soaring.

Lots of good stuff here.

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Creating More Knowledgeable Americans via Public Broadcasting

This is a guest post by Patrick O’Mahen, a fellow at at the University of Michigan’s Weiser Center.


Last week, The Monkey Cage highlighted new research by Stuart Soroka and colleagues, suggesting that watching public broadcasting increases political knowledge. In his comments, John Sides noted that the problem in the United States is that few people watch public broadcasting, limiting any practical benefits. My own research concurs with and extends both Soroka and colleagues’ conclusions and Sides’ practical criticism. Watching public broadcasting not only seems to increase political knowledge, but also reduces knowledge gaps between haves and have-nots. However, historical development of national broadcasting systems awarded first-mover advantages to public broadcasters in most European countries and commercial broadcasters in the United States. As a result, public broadcasting in our country has always faced an impossible uphill fight against established commercial networks.  But I have a modest proposal that might help.

As Soroka et al. conducted their study, I independently found that across 14 western European countries, watching public broadcasting increases correct answers to political knowledge questions by roughly 12 percent, but only in countries that subsidize public broadcasting. That both studies generated similar results at different points in time, using different data, with different countries and different methods strengthens the argument that public broadcasting increases political knowledge – although questions about correlation vs. causation remain.

But even if public broadcasting increases knowledge, this may be less salutary news if this increase is concentrated among the relatively rich, well-educated people who already are politically knowledgeable. In this case, public broadcasters would actually worsen political inequality – not a catchy slogan for an NPR pledge drive.

Fortunately, I find that watching public broadcasting reduces knowledge gaps between rich and poor people:

omahenfig1Score one for Mr. Snuffleupagus.

However, that happy result leaves the problem that Americans rarely consume public broadcasting. The good news is there is a proven way to ensure a long-term influence and a large audience of public broadcasting. The bad news is that the time to implement the solution was in 1927.

As I argue here, the initial conditions under which broadcasting systems formed in the 1920s and 1930s determined how much sway public broadcasters have nearly a century later. For example, Britain awarded a public national broadcaster a monopoly on the airwaves, which froze out commercial broadcasters from the early development of radio. With a monopoly, the public broadcaster easily dominated early development and gained a massive first-mover advantage in broadcasting.

In contrast, the United States declined the opportunity to develop a national public broadcaster and let commercial broadcasters dominate early development, although thriving non-profit and public interest sectors survived into the late 1920s. When Congress did finally move to regulate the industry under the Radio Act of 1927, the regulations sharply favored commercial broadcasters and banished public broadcasters to the dusty low-power corners of the spectrum.

Canada’s policy found a middle ground. Commercial broadcasters dominated the early development of radio. But when the government regulated the industry in the early 1930s, it moved to counter American cultural influence and to improve service of rural Canada by creating a national broadcaster. However, the commercial broadcasters had enough influence to retain their existing frequencies.

In all three countries, the early move created a self-reinforcing system. Listeners grew used to and supported the status quo. Technical expertise developed within the existing broadcasters, leaving them better able to pioneer new technology, such as television. Finally, the dominant interests in each country were able to influence government officials as they developed new broadcasting policies.

Unsurprisingly, Britain and similar countries now have the highest current audience share for public broadcasting, followed by the mixed system of Canada, which is present in Australia and Japan as well. Lagging behind are the United States and other countries with policies that initially favored commercial broadcasters:

omahentable1Despite the disadvantages that public broadcasters have faced in the United States, there may still be a way to encourage public broadcasting.  Instead of developing yet another TV channel or website, perhaps we should try the philosophy of advertisers. Create a news organization (I’ll call it NewsComm) to research and produce 30- to 90-second story blocks that can run during commercial breaks on television and as pop-up or banner ads on popular websites.

NewsComm would be funded by an endowment raised from one-time donations by charitable organizations, university systems, states, localities and individuals, matched from the proceeds of a temporary federal sales tax on televisions, computers, smart phones and other electronic devices. The organization could be run by a board of governors named in equal proportions by the federal and state governments, non-profit donors and by the journalists employed by the organization. Federal employee scales could set standards for compensation.

NewsComm seems unorthodox, but it builds on political advertising’s success in educating viewers. Colleges, states and foundations already fund public broadcasters in the United States, while a tax on electronic equipment has been used in other countries to fund their public broadcasters. The beauty of NewsComm is that the government finances are short-term levies to build an endowment, which shields taxpayers over the long term and ensures the financial independence of the organization from the government of the day and the pressures of commercial advertisers.

Let’s say for example that NewsComm was able to amass a $20 billion endowment (roughly equivalent to the United States spending half of the GDP per capita that the BBC spends annually). Spending 3 percent annually would create a budget of $150 million to spend on capital needs and employees while leaving $450 million to spend annually on advertising space – roughly the amount of a major presidential campaign.

True, it’s difficult to present in-depth stories with nuance in 30 to 90 seconds, but in an age of Twitter, these challenges already exist across all news media. They are also partially surmountable – look at the masterful short posts on places like Wonkblog or Economix in traditional media outlets.

The NewsComm method also has several advantages. First, unlike news broadcasts, NewsComm stories can be run multiple times across multiple outlets – for days if necessary. Second, because the stories would have to be produced in advance, they would have to focus on ongoing policy debates instead of chasing the latest scandals and frivolity.

Perhaps NewsComm is gimmicky. But as the fragmenting media market decreases the audience for public broadcasting, we need to find new ways to provide the knowledge that citizens need to hold elected leaders accountable. And if an advertiser can promote one ridiculous trick to cut 15 percent of your belly fat in a week, wouldn’t it be great if we could use this one ridiculous trick to boost political knowledge of citizens by 15 percent in a year?

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A theory of the importance of Very Serious People in the Democratic Party

Ashok Rao writes:

Paul Krugman’s pet insult – “Very Serious Person” – is more important to understanding America’s policy failures than most people realize, and goes well beyond economic illiteracy. More than anything, without understanding VSPness (henceforth “vispy”) – one can never comprehend how the Democratic Party screwed up so much in the past five years. . . .

The Democrats are vertically infected with vispiness in a way the Republican party is not. While many often talk about the GOP as a more “hierarchal” party (considering the nature of their primary selection process) – Republicans are freer and more iconoclastic. . . . the only way to become a Republican champion is iconoclastic flair. Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and even Sarah Palin are hardly “establishment” in the sense of representing prestigious ideas.

Rao argues that leadership in the Republican party is attained via pursuing “fresh and different ideas: ranging all the way from Chris Christie’s loud personality to Paul Ryan’s nutty-nutty budget.”


For the purposes of argument, I will accept Rao’s assessment of the structures of the two parties. The question then arises: Why? After all, basic stereotypes would suggest that Republicans, not Democrats, would be the stodgy ones. One story is that the Democrats are working on “maintaining the ’90s status-quo” (in Rao’s words). But I think it goes back earlier than that. After all, Reagan was an extremist for his time, whereas Clinton was always a moderate.

My theory (which maybe I’ve blogged before, I can’t remember) revolves around the role of the news media. The media are a liberal, Democratic-leaning institution. This can be seen, for example, from surveys of journalists (the last one I saw showed Democratic reporters outnumbering Republicans 2-1) or political endorsements or various other studies. It is my impression that the news media lean left but the public-relation industry leans right.

Anyway, my point here is that the Republican party has a lot of resources, including much of big business, military officers, and organized religion. They don’t need the news media in the way that the Democrats do. And, I suspect one reason why Very Serious People are important for Democrats is that they are respected by the media. The Republicans can put together a budget that is mocked by major newspapers and nobody cares. But if the Democrats lose the support of the New York Times, they’re in trouble. Hence the asymmetry in seriousness. One might say that the Republicans are hurt by a similar asymmetry with regard to social issues, in that they can’t ignore the support of the religious right or talk radio. Although this is a bit different: the so-called Very Serious People pull the Democrats toward the center, while social issue groups pull the Republicans to the right.

To put it another way, each party has a coalition of financial interests and political activists that are important in staffing the party and shaping its goals. The Democratic party’s balance has changed: in recent decades, with the decline of labor unions, various segments of industry such as high-tech have become important, also there are doctors and lawyers and newspapers. These are all groups that will tend to favor centrist, status-quo, what Krugman might call “very serious” policies.

I think this could/should be studied more systematically (ideally in some sort of comparative analysis with data from many countries).

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Can Public Broadcasting Make Us Smarter Citizens?

There are no end of lamentations about what voters do—and often do not—know about politics and current events.    Could the solution be waiting in the welcoming arms of Big Bird?  Could watching public broadcasting, which tends to feature more substantive “hard” news than does commercial broadcasting, make people more knowledgeable about politics?

In a new article (ungated), Stuart Soroka and a team of scholars address this question.  They conducted surveys in 6 countries—Canada, Italy, Japan, Norway, the UK, and Korea—asking respondents about their knowledge of current affairs and their attention to various media.  Obviously, there are challenges of sorting out correlation and causation here.  Do people who consume public broadcasting become more knowledgeable?  Or are knowledgeable people just more likely to consume public broadcasting?  Via statistical modeling, Soroka and colleagues go some distance in isolating the possible effects of public broadcasting—though they are clear that their modeling is no panacea.

Nevertheless, the results are interesting.  In most countries, people who consume more public broadcasting know more about current events than people who consume less of it.  But these same differences emerge to a lesser extent among those who consume more or less commercial broadcasting.  This suggests that public broadcasting helps citizens learn.  Here’s a graph:


One further question is why watching public broadcasting seems to help more in some countries (like the UK) than in others (like Italy).  With only six countries in this analysis, there’s no firm answer.  But Soroka and colleagues show that two factors may have something to do with it.  First, the larger the public portion of the public broadcaster’s budget, the larger the apparent impact of consuming public broadcasting.  Second, the more independent is public broadcasting from the government, the larger its apparent impact.  This helps explain why public broadcasting seems to be less effective in Italy, since the public broadcaster there is much more under the government’s control than, say, the BBC.

Back here in the US, these findings don’t necessarily bode well for what Americans know, or could learn, about politics.  The audience for public television is shrinking.  The news for public radio is better, mainly because its audience is stable, not because it is growing.  Perhaps the growing on-line audience for public broadcasting is cause for optimism, but regardless of these trends, the audience for American public broadcasting is just small compared to that in many other countries.

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Seeking Director, Educational Program on Data and Computing for Journalists

Mark Hansen, statistician and professor of journalism at Columbia University, writes that they’re looking to hire a director for a new program teaching journalists about data and computing.

Columbia Journalism School is creating a new post-baccalaureate program aimed at preparing college graduates who have little or no quantitative or computational background to be successful applicants to masters and doctoral degree programs that require skills in those areas. This is being done in consultation with a consortium of faculty from across the University, many from newly computational fields such as the digital humanities and the computational social sciences, which face the same disconnect between student preparation and emerging data and computing based research practices. As far as we know this program would be the first of its kind in the country.

We came to this project because, as part of the work of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, we recently started a dual degree program in journalism and computer science. We have found it challenging to recruit young journalists to the program because they find the prospect of immediately enrolling in graduate-level computer science programs daunting. We also know that colleagues across the university want to increase the computational competency of those pursuing graduate study in their disciplines. We are thus leading a group of colleagues in creating a new program to address these needs, which we call Year Zero (so-named to suggest the portion of a graduate degree program that occurs before its first official year).

In the first semester, students will be introduced to a core series of concepts, taught in the context of the artifacts and practices of journalism, the digital humanities and computational social science, and often with pairs of instructors, one from computer science and one from these other fields. In the second term, students who plan to apply to our dual masters degree will take computer sciences courses, while potential candidates for advanced study in other fields will choose from a variety of other computational courses.

We are now seeking a Program Director to work with the Directors of the Tow Center and the Brown Institute to create course offerings for, lead courses in, and help recruit students for Year Zero. This is a full-time, two-year position, but the position is renewable based on performance and the success of the program.

This sounds a lot like the quantitative methods in social sciences M.A. program we started up a decade and a half ago at Columbia. QMSS was immediately successful and became more so, and I have every expectation that Mark’s program will become a similar success.

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