When Journalists Choose to Speculate Rather Than Report

Earlier this month, Dave Weigel at Slate looked at the media’s disastrous initial handling of a Congressional Budget Office report – CBOghazi, hah! – and addressed one of my pet peeves: reporting that skips right past the actual policy issues to speculation about how they will play politically. I think of this as “second-order” reporting, and it’s almost always a bad thing.

I wrote about this during the 2004 presidential campaign, when I did some painful research, wading through two months of TV news transcripts. What I found:

Mr. Kerry proposes spending $650 billion extending health insurance to lower- and middle-income families. Whether you approve or not, you can’t say he hasn’t addressed the issue. Why hasn’t this voter heard about it? Well, I’ve been reading 60 days’ worth of transcripts from the places four out of five Americans cite as where they usually get their news: the major cable and broadcast TV networks. Never mind the details – I couldn’t even find a clear statement that Mr. Kerry wants to roll back recent high-income tax cuts and use the money to cover most of the uninsured. When reports mentioned the Kerry plan at all, it was usually horse race analysis – how it’s playing, not what’s in it.

Now, it pains me to admit it, but by and large reporting on policy issues actually has gotten better since then. But you still see the old, lazy style pop up now and then. In the case of the C.B.O. report, I suspect that one main reason reporters backslid was because they were covering their own embarrassment at initially getting the substance wrong.

But it’s still worth saying that this is the wrong way to go.

In his analysis, Mr. Weigel actually made a point beyond the one I made back in 2004. Not only does second-order reporting deny readers/viewers the information they should be getting; the truth is that nobody knows how any particular news item will play politically. What political scientists tell us, in fact, is that most of the news stories about politicians running for office that seem important matter not at all: elections are primarily determined by economic developments and, occasionally, war, rather than by gaffes and all that.

So when a journalist speculates about how public perceptions of a budget document may affect the next election, this is a purely destructive action: not only does it divert scarce time and resources from providing information about the actual policy issue, but it has zero value even in its ostensible goal of predicting future political developments.

I’m not against all political reporting: it has to be done, and colorful anecdotes are part of what motivates people to read newspapers. But substance should always come first. And if reporters don’t understand the substance well enough – if they don’t know enough about the economics of health reform to tell the difference between job loss and reduced labor supply – they should defer to or consult with someone who does before they start writing.