Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


What Makes Us Politic

campaign-coverage

(Photo: Picsfive/Shutterstock)

Why Make Stuff Up? The Incredible Demand on Campaign Reporters to Keep Things Interesting

• April 07, 2014 • 9:00 AM

(Photo: Picsfive/Shutterstock)

Will the recent incorporation of some working political scientists into legacy media outlets help curb the use of misleading headlines and made-up stories of momentum in campaign coverage?

Last week, I attended a panel at the conference of the Midwest Political Science Association devoted to understanding the lessons of John Sides and Lynn Vavreck’s book The Gamble, a detailed and thoughtful study of the 2012 presidential campaign. It was a great discussion, but one of the things that a few panelists and I kind of fixated on was the tendency of some campaign journalists to basically make stuff up.

For an example, we might note the media coverage in the final weeks of the last presidential campaign, at which point the polls were basically frozen in place. Politico nonetheless ran a story describing a “surging” Romney who seemed to have “momentum” on his side. They later walked the story back and found that Romney’s momentum seemed to have petered out. Politico was hardly the only news outlet to describe some sort of surge and decline in Romney’s momentum.

The key thing to keep in mind, though, is that nothing had actually happened. In the final weeks of October (prior to Superstorm Sandy), there was no detectable shift in the poll standings for either candidate. The race remained close, but Obama had a stable lead in nearly all the swing states and there was no evidence of any sort that that had changed or was about to change.

There is tremendous demand on reporters to provide content, particularly in an age of 24-hour news channels. And there is similarly tremendous demand on reporters and editors to make the news appealing to as broad an audience as possible.

But you can’t write that. Campaign journalists, especially those embedded with a presidential campaign, are exposed to almost the exact same thing every day in the final months before Election Day. They wake up, get on a plane, follow the candidate to some auditorium where he says the exact same thing he did the day before, meet voters who cheer very much like the ones who cheered the day before, stop in some mediocre diner where the candidate shakes hands with people who are eating food that looks an awful lot like the food from yesterday’s event, get on another plane and do it all over again. And then their smartphone beeps and tells them the tracking polls show no changes from yesterday. But the headline “Nothing Has Changed” will not appear on a front page, if it even gets run at all. News is, by definition, new. The campaign journalist’s career incentive is to somehow find something new to say in this deeply repetitive environment. The campaign journalist who can’t come up with something to say may quickly find herself moved to a rather less glamorous beat.

Yet while there’s some penalty for failing to come up with campaign “news,” there’s very little penalty for fabricating a story about such a squishy topic as “momentum,” particularly when other news outlets are willing to report the same thing. Yes, making up quotes or sources can mean death for a journalistic career, but to make up stories about momentum or narrative (no less “vibrations“)? No problem. And the campaigns are happy to provide quotes. Probably the worst that happens is some political scientist writers send you angry emails.

As Vavreck pointed out during the panel, this sort of thing is hardly unique to politics. Journalists basically invent stories all the time on such subjects as sports (why an athlete under/over-performed, why he got signed or cut by a team), disasters (heard the latest theory about the Malaysian airliner?), the economy (the Dow took modest dip after traders saw the Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones), and other major areas. It’s not that the topics are unusually complex. Journalists tend to be pretty smart and knowledgeable about the subjects they’re covering. But stories like “The Malaysian Airliner Probably Crashed and It Will Be a Few Weeks Until We Find the Wreckage” or “The Dow Experienced Some Random Fluctuations in Price Common to Trading Markets” are just not that interesting to many readers and viewers.

There is tremendous demand on reporters to provide content, particularly in an age of 24-hour news channels. And there is similarly tremendous demand on reporters and editors to make the news appealing to as broad an audience as possible, especially given the intense competition and declining profitability common to the media industry. So, certainly, CNN could just not discuss campaign news on a slow day and instead devote hours to a detailed discussion of the implementation of health care reform or what the new president’s cabinet might consist of. But who would watch that? Who would pay to advertise during such coverage?

None of this is to impugn the reporters who know their subjects and are working to get their coverage right, but the incentives they face are serious and do encourage the occasional fabricated trend story. Can anything be done about this that doesn’t involve a complete restructuring of the industry?

Possibly. I’m encouraged by the recent incorporation of some political scientists into the media. Scholars like Jonathan Bernstein, Brendan Nyhan, and the folks at the Monkey Cage used to write home-grown blogs and serve as informal media critics; now they work for Bloomberg, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. The political science perspective is now part of the way mainstream journalism covers politics. I’m thinking this cross-pollination between journalism and political science will end up improving coverage of politics and giving readers and viewers a better understanding of how the political world works.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

More From Seth Masket

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


November 24 • 10:00 AM

Why Are Patients Drawn to Certain Doctors?

We look for an emotional fit between our physicians and ourselves—and right now, that’s the best we can do.


November 24 • 8:00 AM

Why Do We Elect Corrupt Politicians?

Voters, it seems, are willing to forgive—over and over again—dishonest yet beloved politicians if they think the job is still getting done.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.