Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps?: Brendan Nyhan Muses on Why So Many Reporters Just Don't Do Their Jobs
The momentum behind a misleading narrative: On Thursday night, Politico beat a retreat in the great momentum debate of 2012. The site’s Glenn Thrush and Jennifer Epstein opened… “In the past 10 days, Mitt Romney’s campaign has gone from Big Mo to Slow Mo”--and went on to note that “an increasing pile of polling data [is] pointing to a race that has stabilized since Barack Obama’s disastrous performance at the Oct. 3rd debate in Denver”… a dramatic about-face from a story published three days earlier (not ten!), in which Thrush and his colleague Jonathan Martin contrasted “a surging Romney” with a president who “is currently on the ugly end of Big Mo.” The new Politico story is also more accurate. The presidential race has been essentially static in the second half of October….
Politico was hardly the only media outlet to portray Romney’s gains as continuing in the latter part of the month due to some nebulous sense of momentum… New York Times… Jim Rutenberg and Jeff Zeleny… Slate’s… John Dickerson….
[I]t is worth taking a closer look at why coverage of Romney’s “momentum” went wrong….
[F]ew reporters are knowledgeable about statistics or quantitative analysis…. [R]eporters should draw on the high-quality polling aggregation models…. [J]ournalists may be misled by the analogy to momentum during primary campaigns… the logic of strategic voting is not relevant to general elections that are dominated by the two major parties…. [P]rofessional and commercial incentives do exist for journalists to emphasize the drama of a race…. [J]ournalists cover the horse race. Traditionally, campaign reporters attend campaign events and seek to infer which campaign is winning, which is losing, and why. (Dickerson’s case that “Romney is peaking at the right time,” which acknowledges the tie in the polls, is based on enthusiastic crowds at his rallies.)…
[J]ournalists should be trying to help the public better understand the true state of the race rather than constructing their own narratives. There are important stories to be told about why Romney stopped making gains and what implications that fact has for the final weeks of the campaign, but they can only be told if the media sheds its crude notions of “momentum” and grounds its reporting in the data.