Two views of journalism clash in debate over Nate Silver’s work

By calling Nate Silver’s poll-driven journalism “overrated,” Politico reporter Dylan Byers has become a symbol of another view of journalism, creating a debate between practitioners and protectors of both types.

Politico and Silver, who writes The New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog, both specialize in making you feel like an insider. Both approaches serve news consumers very well. One lets you consume politics as entertainment. The other, politics as math. Entertainment is fun, and math is hard.

You can mine Byers’ own Twitter account for the insider knowledge that makes Politico a must-read for politics nuts:

Or look to today’s “Playbook” by Mike Allen, who writes that “Many of the top Republicans who called and wrote us yesterday fear Mitt Romney’s momentum has stalled.”

Nate Silver provides a parallel, and very different service: His FiveThirtyEight blog aggregates and weights polls to forecast election results. A graphic on Silver’s blog makes the subtleties of his writing easy to overlook: Wednesday morning, for example, you could quickly scan his forecast to see he thinks President Obama will win 299 Electoral College votes, or you could read a dreary sentence about why Silver calculated that even a 10 percent decline in the popular vote in Northeastern states wouldn’t affect his projection much:

Mr. Obama’s projected margin in the popular vote would decline to 1.2 or 1.3 percentage points, meaning a shift against him of only 0.2 or 0.3 percentage points.

Try to get a clickable headline out of that snoozefest!

PolitiFact — operated by the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times — often finds itself facing a similar challenge, as its ratings are far blunter than the elegant writing explaining them.

But since Byers’ post, the nation’s nerds have rallied to Silver. Gregory Ferenstein, who describes himself as “one of the few journalists with an advanced degree in mathematics” says Silver presents a “very disturbing fact” to a “species primed to believe in free-will and in control of our destiny.”

And in a nicely written piece published on Nieman Journalism Lab today, Jonathan Stray argues “there’s also a deeper cultural force at play here: Journalists are loathe to admit that the answer cannot be known.”

And that’s where this debate falters. Journalism is pretty good at writing about the past, decent at writing about the present, and lousy at writing about the future.

In this case, there is evidence that if the campaigns were producing journalism, it would be slightly more aligned with Silver’s brand — identifying voters and their likely votes — than with Politico’s — analyzing candidates and their tactics.

In early September, Sasha Issenberg wrote that “the press’s fascination with strategic calculations and gamesmanship well exceeds its ability to decode the tactics underneath.” In such a polarized electorate, Issenberg wrote,

where fewer than one-tenth of voters are moving between candidates, the most advanced thinking inside a campaign is just as likely to focus on fine-tuning statistical models to refine vote counts and improve techniques for efficiently identifying and mobilizing existing supporters.

In a recent New Yorker piece on the Obama campaign’s home stretch, Ryan Lizza quotes “one of Obama’s top organizers,” who says that despite all the grand advances afforded by data mining and microtargeting, the campaign’s placed a heavy bet on an analog technology found at the end of most campaign volunteers’ arms.

“The most important thing is making sure we have the ground infrastructure in place,” this person said, “so we can knock on people’s doors and talk to people face to face as much as we can.”

On Nov. 7, we may know whether that was a good strategy for the president. But no matter whether Silver’s own predictions are exactly correct the day before, I doubt Politico readers, not to mention its reporters and editors, will suddenly view politics and political journalism differently.

Horse-race journalism, though often derided, is popular for the same reason horse races are, even if you know the odds. Is it advisable for a Politico staffer to predict that a Romney win would turn Silver into a “one-term celebrity”? I don’t know. I can’t predict the future.

Disclosure: For 22 months I worked at TBD, owned by Allbritton, which also owns Politico.

Read up! Why Liberals Cling To Nate Silver (BuzzFeed) | Romney Campaign Brushes Off “538″ Projections (BuzzFeed) | The Nate Silver backlash (The Washington Post) | Nate Silver and the Nerd-Haters (American Conservative) | The misguided backlash against Nate Silver (CJR) | Nerds Rush to Nate Silver’s Defense (The Atlantic Wire)

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  • Anonymous

    Both tweets from Politifact have nothing to do with helping the public make informed decisions. On the contrary, they are based on “appearance” and “fear his [Mr. Romney's] momentum has stalled”. Outside the beltway, this information is useless to anyone trying to make a decision on whom to vote for for president as it covers no substantive issue, yet Poynter operates just such an endeavor, making entertainment more important than informing the citizenry and thus making a mockery of their motto ['standing for journalism, strengthening democracy].

    The mocking of substantive journalism itself gets mocked by Poynter:
    “Try to get a clickable headline out of that snoozefest!”
    This again illustrates both Poynter’s disdain for information that would actually help the populace make an informed decision as well as impotence in presenting important data in a readable and interesting way.

    The Ferenstein article linked two makes one important point: that Mr. Silver’s work threatens the whole field of punditry, since it has been the only reliable predictor of anything in politics. So, pundits love to hate Mr. Silver. In addition, the multi-billion dollar campaign industry does not want anyone to know how little effect their work has on who wins, so they also ridicule him.

    The one thing I disagree with in the Ferenstein article is the ineffectiveness of the media. Though I believe it is true, it is because the main stream media takes itself out of the picture through he said/she said storytelling, uncritical presentation of claims, pursuing profit at the expense of informing the public, etc. Because the main stream media do not fulfill their mission of helping the public to make informed decisions, the public has no choice but to base decisions on how a candidate appears or some other useless criterion.

    I agree with Mr. Stray that “We should rejoice that this is a higher standard than we had before”. Too bad Poynter does not subscribe to that higher standard.

  • Anonymous

    This is an extension of the web v. dead tree feud. The deadtree crowd continue to base their cred on knowledge which, to a large extent, is built on “access” and membership in the Beltway echo chamber. Silver’s knowledgebase and methodology is entirely detached from that world and its systematic bias; it’s also ideally suited to the web (i.e., can be continuously updated). Some of the MSM has, of course, moved to the web as in the case of Politico, but it’s still the same people and the same model.

    Silver has a better track record than most of the Beltway hacks, which MSM types clearly don’t like esp, given how inept and biased they usually are at interpreting poll data (cherrypicking to a narrative, making much of statistically trivial changes). If someone can cover the horse race better than WaPo or Politico without their slavish devotion to their peers and to operatives, particularly of the GOP, then a feud definitely will brew. Politico, etc. are based on a version of “elite” opinion that has rather little substance. It deserves the challenge and, like Krugman, having someone do it without their flimsy credentials just makes it better.

  • Anonymous

    It’s useful to remember that horse races themselves aren’t nearly as popular as they used to be, either.


  • Chris V. Lopez

    I’ll take Nate Silver and his methodology of probability over anyone at Politico any day of the week. I can’t think of a single mainstream media outlet that has distinguished themselves this political season, but I can think of many that have been disappointing, starting with Politico.

  • Roy Peter Clark

    Andrew, thanks so much for the good analysis. There’s a word that describes most of Nate Silver’s critics: innumerate, the mathematical equivalent of illiterate. I have a strong sense that Silver understands the methodologies of his critics. They, I fear, do not understand his, which make their critiques not just off-base, but hollow.