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)

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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