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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.

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