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View Diary: Social Scientists Are Better Than Journalists at Journalism (54 comments)

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  •  Social Scientists are better than Journalists... (4+ / 0-) Social Science

    I absolutely agree that the methodologies of the social sciences often can and should be brought to bear in the field of journalism—and in no place are those methodologies more needed than in that unholy offspring of journalism and astrology: punditry.

    As someone who's done a fair amount of journalism, I can attest that there is immense value in leveraging publicly available data and the people who have the skills to unpack it (i.e. social scientists), but I respectfully disagree with your claim that "social scientists are better than journalists at journalism."

    First of all, I think that you're mistaking journalism—which, at its best, is a kind of alchemy that turns the ore of raw data, facts, and figures, into the gold of understanding—with puditry—which at its best (though I've rarely seen it at its best), molds journalism into predictions and opinions.

    Of course, the world doesn't break down into clean lines, and it's rare to find someone who is solely journalist or solely pundit. Rachel Maddow, for example does a mix of punditry and journalism. But just because there's no easy demarcation doesn't mean a demarcation doesn't exist! Chris Hayes's show on MSNBC is mostly punditry, and no one would accuse Woodward and Bernstein of punditry when they cracked Watergate wide open.

    Distinguishing between punditry and journalism is important because it wasn't the journalists who failed to accurately predict the results of yesterday's election; it was the pundits. Had those pundits seen the data through the lens of social scientists, maybe they wouldn't have been so hopelessly wrong.

    Of course, journalists wrote stories about how close the election was—citing an out-of-context poll or three and interviewing political operatives. And if those journalists had paid more attention to the facts and less to the political operatives spinning for their respective candidates, we would have had a better understanding of the state of the election.

    But that error is caused not because, by golly, there aren't enough economists working for the New York Times, but rather because the nature of our corporate press is to look at he-said-she-said arguments and call them a draw. But, real journalism is committed with frequency and panache. It's done by people who know that their job is to take fact and transform it into story, weave a narrative built not on the fleeting machinations of our political echo-chamber but on the insights of human witness and, sometimes, on the signal coaxed from the noise by our scientists and social scientists.

    All of which leads me to my second point, which is that without people trained in storytelling, there can be no real understanding—which is a long way of saying that Google is great, but unless someone can tell me what it all means and why its important, a fact is little more than a lump of worthless metal (to unnecessarily continue the alchemy metaphor).

    Since I realize that this comment is going on forever, I'll leave with these last, unfinished thoughts: (1) We understand the world in stories, and we'll always need journalists, because they're the ones who tell us the true ones. Can the foundations of those stories be girded by the methodologies of the social sciences? You bet. Can they be replaced by them? God, that would be a sad world. (2) Your title might be a touch hyperbolic: you're argument isn't that people ought to turn to the most recent social science journal when they want their news, but that is kind of what it implies. (3) Plenty of news doesn't require public data sets. And Google is great, but it can't tell you the news unless someone writes it down first. We need people, lots of them, to be on the ground telling stories. And until we have a robot that can discover a fact, tell you what it means, and why it's important, we're going to need all the great journalists we can find.

    "Don't let it end like this. Tell them I said something." -the last words of Pancho Villa

    by Shef on Wed Nov 07, 2012 at 05:14:27 PM PST

    •  interesting comment... (6+ / 0-)

      I agree with you that we need storytellers.  In fact, we still need some journalists that are generalists.  But, in today's complicated world, we also need more journalists who are specialists, or alternatively specialists (like Paul Krugman and Nate Silver) who can tell stories.  We also need the generalists to understand enough of what they are writing about to tell a fair and accurate story.

      Yes, Virginia, there is an alternative to the death penalty!

      by econlibVA on Wed Nov 07, 2012 at 05:44:07 PM PST

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