Democrats and the census

I’m thinking about how Republicans are nervous about Obama’s pick to lead the census “because he uses statistical sampling.” It seems curious to me that only Republicans are quoted in the story. You would think that if the problem with statistical sampling is academic in nature, then there would be at least a few Democrats among the hundreds in Congress concerned about it as well.

On one hand, this could simply be an instance of poor reporting that ignored Democrats. But let’s pretend for now that most Democrats don’t have a problem with the math, and instead that the offended Republicans are obfuscating because they know “minorities, immigrants, the poor and the homeless are those most likely to be missed in an actual head count” and that more of them help Democrats in elections. If they are, it’s pretty outrageous of them to think of minorities or the poor as less deserving of representation in a democracy than people who are easier to find.

So, let’s say the Republicans are hiding the “real” reason they don’t want statistical sampling to be used in the census.

But then, the Democrats are quiet, too, and they have an incentive to remain so, just as the Republicans have an political incentive to argue against Robert Groves. Statistical sampling may help Democrats in the 2010 census. By keeping quiet, they run the risk of allowing poor research methods into something as important for the nation as the census — important both in the cost of conducting the census and in its implications for the shape of our Congress, and more.

Where’s the Times in all of this? Silent. They couldn’t even try to bring in some “expert” or other to comment on the strengths and weaknesses of statistical sampling? They couldn’t have brought in some comment from their science writers? Hopefully they will do so at some point. But not addressing whether there’s any debate on the question at all leaves the Democrats with a few free points, at least superficially.

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Stealth journalism: What does it mean if people don’t want to – and won’t – engage in government?

Although most Americans like having the option to participate in government when they mood strikes them, they usually have no interest in becoming more involved. Most people aren’t interested in debate or policy.

Increasing the ability for people to meet with others to discuss issues does not result in better decisions, citizens who are more considerate of others, or increased citizen satisfaction in how decisions are made.

People would be OK with a government run by unaccountable elites so long as those elites were empathetic towards citizens and did not act for personal gain.

I just finished reading about these and other conclusions in Stealth Democracy, by John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse.

To the extent the above are true — and the authors are quick to point out that their work is quite far from definitive — what, if any, are the implications for journalism?

I think there are probably many. But this book is becoming one where I think about it so much after reading it, everything becomes mentally cloudy. I’m sure in the future the book will come up, probably multiple times (I’m already formulating another post on it). Possibly in a late-night what-does-it-all-mean offering. For now, here’s something simpler, albeit still slightly incoherent.

Hibbing and Theiss-Morse offer the following reasoning for why Americans are continually dissatisfied with government:

• Most people will avoid confronting disagreement when possible
• Most people think everybody agrees on the answers to problems confronting their communities and country
• When people see politicians disagree, therefore, they feel it must be because there is some other interest (a corrupting “special interest”) affecting their judgment. Otherwise, because the agreement among citizens is so obvious, politicians would have taken action on those problems already

This is a rough sketch of their argument. There is much more nuance and empirical data to it.

Even within these outlines, though, is one way journalists can help address the situation as the authors describe it.* Simply put: Journalists can work to broaden perspectives.

One way journalists could help is by increasing the diversity of sources — of race, class, background, and viewpoint — in their work. But this sounds familiar. Journalists have been trying to improve on this for years (though they certainly have improvements they could make). Plus, just tossing more information into the fray runs straight into Hibbing and Theiss-Morse’s argument that more information rarely helps the situation, no matter how well-constructed it is. Increasing the variety of reasons or sources for people to consider (or, in this case, getting people to realize those viewpoints exist in the first place) often degrades, instead of nourishes, a deliberation, they argue. I can imagine many people, such as, based on the interview in this book, Amy Goodman, would seriously take issue with this claim.

Yet one of the authors’ prescriptions for addressing Americans’ attitudes is increasing their awareness of the diversity of attitudes in their midst — thus attacking the second bullet point listed above, and undermining the assumption that it should be easy for politicians to formulate a plan of action.

So what can a journalist can do? Dedicate entire weeks of newspapers, or Web content, to introducing people to different theories? Move the editorial pages to the 1A? Create a new section of the Web site explicitly to promote diverse viewpoints (certainly you can find infinite numbers of them on the Web. Respectable ones, too).

But then don’t you run into another of Hibbing and Theiss-Morse’s arguments: People don’t like debate conflict, and they usually become even more dissatisfied participating in contentious decision-making than they did before? Putting debate and disagreement into peoples’ lives has precisely the opposite effect from what we’d hope. They do not engage. They hit the TV listings.

It may be that journalists are simply out of luck. It may be the time to introduce people to diversity is only when they’re young. Possibly in college, when they’re removed from the atmosphere of their youth. At neither of those times, I am assuming here, do journalists bestow much effort on the young (and they’re not often paying customers, so why would they?).

But having missed the opportunity, perhaps they should not expect their well-written profiles and feature stories, or even inclusion of more voices on the Web, to do much for appreciating diversity.

* If, in fact, it needs to be addressed at all — an argument they would question, and one I’m thinking about a lot more now as well. Never mind the entirely separate argument one would need to say this is a journalist’s responsibility to worry about in the first place.

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I don’t know enough about Politico’s audience

This Columbia Journalism Review article I heard about from @ccadelago has a lot of truth to it, I think, but I wonder whether it should come with an important caveat in its use of Politico.com to argue “the life cycle of a story is no longer the simple reporting-writing-editing-publication; it’s now reporting-writing-editing-publication-syndication-conversation.”

That seems more true when you’re fighting for people who are tapped into a flood of information online. I’m thinking people who have some time, maybe an interest in politics, and who care about HuffPost and Drudge.

But what about everybody else? How useful is Garber’s argument for a local news organization whose audience is comprised of people seeking some specific information about their community — and then going off to knit? These news organizations don’t have nearly the competition of the DC media world. Need they be as gung-ho as Politico for Web eyeballs? For, as the article suggests, Politico’s strategy has implications for the kind of coverage that emanates from it.

And not having read the New Republic article yet, I’m not sure what it concludes the Politico’s goals are apart from, as Garber mentions, is “to be the most talked-about and cited in that day’s news cycle.”

But I still feel I can ask: Which news cycle is that? Who’s paying attention to it and what are their demands?

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