Tag Archives: Strategy

How to talk about science & the environment, based on survey results

It’s easy to think of science communication as imparting facts the audience doesn’t have yet. Think of what we do in the classroom. We know that we know things students don’t know yet. Students are responsible for absorbing this material if they want an A in the class. On the other hand, we don’t test voters about their factual knowledge before we let them vote. That’s probably a good thing – several southern states used to deploy impossible voter “literacy” tests as a way to disenfranchise black voters. These tests were banned as part of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, but the conservative Roberts Supreme Court overturned this section of the law. Today, the biggest thing stopping a fact-based pop quiz before people vote may be a political party that likes to make up it’s own facts!

Whenever I read about scientific debates being put in to policy, it feels like I always see people taking the tone that “if only the other side knew the facts, they would join us.” For example, if only people knew how harmful it was to the entire school when a parent avoids vaccinating their kids. If only people knew the risks of climate change. Over at Slate, Dr. Tim Requarth has an excellent article summarizing how this “deficit” model is a poor way to communicate science to the broader public. Providing more knowledge actually tends to backfire in lab experiments. So why does the “fill a deficit in people’s knowledge” style of communication persist?

“The deficit model perfectly explains how a scientist learns science. But the obstacles faced by science communicators are not epistemological but cultural. The skills required are not those of a university lecturer but a rhetorician.”

Maybe it’s because I was trained in the social sciences and not neuroscience, but I don’t fully buy this. I have sent scientific manuscripts off to journals where my peer reviewers and/or the editors have had very different assumptions of what good research should be. Any social scientist who tries to publish for long enough will run in to hostile reviewers. I’ve always tried to avoid being this kind of reviewer and focused on the internal consistency of analysis. However, I have seen reviewers ignore serious methods issues that I caught. I think they hated the framing of an article so much that they didn’t bother to keep reading!

Even when we think of ourselves as scientists, we need to learn something about being a “rhetorician” to overcome hostile peer reviewers. Early on in my career, I assumed reviewers would take statistical results at roughly face value. My first quant manuscript showed that, among other things, prime time presidential press conferences received unusual coverage. One of my initial peer reviewers didn’t buy the result. After all, cable news can broadcast breaking news at 2:30 AM if they need to, so why should the time of day matter at all? I was a bit surprised by this comment. First of all, I wasn’t studying cable news!

Looking back on it, this peer reviewer and I had different assumptions. I had written “late runs” for evening stories and rushed against a tight deadline. I spent one evening with the overnight crew at a local TV station and that’s when I started looking at grad school as a less painful option. I knew that just because reporters have the technical capacity to cover stories at 2:30 AM doesn’t mean they want to sacrifice their entire routine to work the graveyard shift. However, I wrote this earlier draft of my article focusing on how these traditions persist even as technological barriers fade. I never really did a good job explaining why these barriers might persist.

When I first got this review I was outraged. Reviewer #2 had invented incorrect facts to justify a rejection. The next time I sent the paper off, a reviewer was furious I didn’t describe a big post 9/11 spike in how George W. Bush’s press conferences were covered. I tested for it and it wasn’t there, after controlling for specific things Bush did differently than his predecessors.

Eventually I learned that even my quantitative articles have to have more storytelling. I can’t just point to the evening press conference variable and rely on common sense. I had to explain that it took Congressional Democrats six years (and a major scandal) to realize they might get a better chance to respond to Ronald Reagan’s prime time press conferences if they stayed in their office to answer a reporter’s phone call! I had to explain what Bush did differently in his press conferences, and that presidents doing things could influence journalists. If my narrative has gaps, people will fill in the gaps with their own assumptions, even though those assumptions are normally wrong.

Assumptions About How the Public Views Science

With this in mind, I wanted to delve in to some assumptions we may have about how the public views science. Donald Trump wants to slash the EPA’s budget. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican chairman of the House Science committee, insists that scientists are manipulating data to over-emphasize the effects of climate change. His has a long history of using subpoenas to go after federal scientists publishing results he doesn’t like. He also just happens to get more campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry than any other industry. Smith wants all federal grant recipients to pledge they are acting in “the national interest” and accused climate scientists of abandoning the scientific method during a recent hearing. If Lamar Smith is the Republican Party’s main legislator on science and the environment, how much is he speaking for the interests of Republican voters?

To try and answer this question, I looked at data from the American National Election Survey. The full survey asked the same panelists a series of questions before and after the election. One of the things they asked respondents to do was answer, on a 0-100 scale, how do you feel about the following people or groups. 0 is feeling very cold, 50 is average or indifferent, and 100 is warmth. One of the groups they asked about was scientists. Let’s see how they compare to other groups:

Overall Trump vote Other vote
Scientists 76.7 71.71 81.93
Clinton 43.81 12.99 68.88
Trump 42.09 76.29 15.65
Christian Fundamentalists 50.27 62 39.73
Tea Party 44.53 59.46 30.9
Gays & Lesbians 60.73 49.66 71.57
Police 75.48 85.33 70.38

On average, respondents felt more warmth towards scientists than any other person or group in the post-election survey! There is a bit of a partisan split, but warmth towards scientists is fairly bipartisan. At the time of this survey, scientists were not seen as a distinctly liberal interest group. One of the long-standing concerns about today’s March For Science is that marchers would play in to the hands of someone like Lamar Smith, making scientists a more partisan football.

The best analogy may be how people feel about police. Some progressives have strong negative feelings towards police officers, particularly in the wake of Black Lives Matter. However, most Democrats feel at least some warmth to police. Some Trump voters have strong negative feelings towards scientists. However, most Trump voters felt at least some warmth to scientists. The regression results were dull enough (statistical significance but small effects) that I put them as a footnote only.

Next, let’s take a look at government funding for “science and technology.” In the abstract, this polls very well in the ANES. 58.35 percent of respondents said the government should spend more money on science and technology. Only 7.52 percent of respondents say the government should spend less money. When people critique spending, they tend to say they dislike particular projects, not the abstract idea. Even Lamar Smith wrote an op-ed in USA Today suggesting more funding in science and technology would be good, even though he spent most of the op-ed attacking scientists he dislikes.

To test where people stand on this issue I ran an ordered logit model. The ologit is used when we have three or more categories that we can put in a rank order, like spend less on science and technology, spend the same amount, or spend more. It assumes each independent variable will have a certain effect pushing people to one end of the spectrum or the other. In other words, having a college degree would either push people to spending more or spending less. It wouldn’t split respondents like a wishbone.

I put this together fairly quickly, so I used the following independent variables:

  • College graduate
  • Age (range 18-90)
  • Male
  • Race (white = omitted; multi-racial respondents are coded as “other” in the quick ANES aggregation)
  • Trump voter
  • Ideology on 7 point liberal/conservative scale, where 1 is very liberal. I use results from the post-election survey.
  • A question on how respondents interpret the Bible. All respondents got this question regardless of their faith.
    • The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word
    • The Bible is the word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally
    • The Bible is a book written by men and is not the word of God.
    • Sometimes I just separated the more secular response from the other two.
  • Income is currently restricted in the ANES because it could be used to identify respondents. The survey used two different questions in a split-panel designed for self-identified class, which I don’t want to tangle with today. So there’s no good control there.

Here are the results:

scibud_o-use

* Note: Categories are ranked less spending, equal spending, more spending. Positive coefficients indicate a group of respondents who wants the government to spend more.

As we might expect, increased government spending is a partisan issue. The more conservative someone is, the less they support additional government spending on science and technology. Even after controlling for ideology, Trump voters are somewhat less supportive, but p = 0.056. Interpret that however you see fit; I’m going to just move on. College graduates were not significantly more likely to support additional government funding for science. However, people who said the Bible is not the word of God were significantly more in favor of increased government funding.

I’m a bit uneasy about how to interpret the large difference between Hispanic respondents and non-Hispanic Whites. The ANES asked respondents about Hispanic ethnicity and race as separate questions. If I read the codebook correctly, at least 20 percent of Hispanic respondents checked other: Hispanic for race instead of checking a box for white, black, native American, Asian or pacific islander.

Anyway, it’s a bit difficult to interpret ologit results since we need to rely on the cut points to get more tangible estimates of how many respondents are in each category. I used Stata’s margins command to make two different predictions. First, here is the prediction for White males who voted for Trump, lack a college degree, and did not say the Bible is written by men:

Ideology Less Funding Equal Funding More Funding
1 (very liberal) 5.26% 27.06% 67.68%
2 6.20% 30.05% 63.75%
3 7.30% 33.08% 59.62%
4 8.58% 36.07% 55.35%
5 10.05% 38.95% 51.00%
6 11.74% 41.62% 46.64%
7 (very conservative) 13.68% 44.00% 42.32%

Now here are White females who did not vote for Trump, have a college degree, and said the Bible is written by men:

Ideology Less Funding Equal Funding More Funding
1 (very liberal) 2.69% 16.52% 80.79%
2 3.19% 18.88% 77.94%
3 3.77% 21.45% 74.78%
4 4.46% 24.19% 71.35%
5 5.27% 27.09% 67.64%
6 6.21% 30.08% 63.70%
7 (very conservative) 7.31% 33.11% 59.57%

There are definitely some differences based on political ideology and other variables. However, more funding for science and technology has pretty strong support in the abstract.

If people marching today talk about scientific method or process in abstract terms, they should remember that this has fairly broad support. Even conservative Trump voters have relatively warm feelings towards scientists and funding science. Marchers can build off these positive associations. It’s worth noting that even Lamar Smith is trying to draft off the positive associations people have with science. He’s trying to portray himself as a defender of “good science” even as he conducts political witch hunts. (I’ve seen progressives use similar framing to attack conservative scholarship, but they lack subpoena power.)

If marchers accuse Republican voters of being broadly anti-science, they risk alienating voters and making scientists look like a liberal interest group. Right now, most Republican voters do not associate science with liberal interest groups. They may associate a few disciplines with liberal interest groups. I think most sociologists want to strengthen that association. But portraying all Republicans as being anti-science could easily backfire, since this is not how many Republicans see themselves.

Science In the Abstract vs. Environmental Policy

The elephant in the room is that partisans tend to see specific science-related policy choices differently than they see science in the abstract. For example, Lamar Smith can write an op-ed declaring his support for more science funding, then spend most of his time in Congress attacking climate researchers. Voters could feel warmly towards scientists, but still resist vaccination. Prior studies have shown that conservatives with a high amount of scientific knowledge know what the scientific consensus is on climate change, but they refuse to accept it. We may be better off thinking of hostile audiences outside academic like we think of hostile peer reviewers, instead of treating them like people who just need to be informed about science.

With that in mind, I decided to test how much having a college degree and warm feelings towards scientists affect respondents’ views on climate change, after controlling for ideology. For now let’s start with the question “is global warming happening?” 80.8 percent of respondents said global warming has probably been happening, while 19.2 percent said it probably hasn’t been happening. Those were the only options in the ANES. Respondents couldn’t choose a definitive yes or no. Given how pessimistic some of my friends are, I expected to see more “it’s probably not happening” responses. I ran a logit regression to see what predicts a yes. (I know, it’s weird when most people say yes, but I think this makes the direction of coefficients easier to keep straight.)

logit-warminghappening

Reminder: positive regression coefficients here mean support for the more environmentalist position that global warming is probably happening.

For starters, it’s worth pointing out that college graduates were not significantly more likely to say global warming is probably happening. One of the biggest surprises here is that there isn’t a straight line between how literally someone takes the Bible and whether they think global warming is happening. People who took a moderate stance on this question of faith were the most likely to say global warming is probably happening, controlling for other variables. It’s easy to think of rational, atheistic science on one side of environmental debates and evangelical faith as the other side. It may be worth thinking more about how to talk to people who are in the middle, trying to balance the warnings of modern science with the teachings of their religious faith.

As we might expect, political ideology is the biggest predictor of whether someone says global warming is probably happening. Even after controlling for some variables that predict political ideology and whether someone voted for Trump, political identity and behavior appear to have a strong correlation with someone’s belief in whether global warming is a real phenomenon. (Full disclosure: this is a bit of a statistical dodge in the causal argument since “do you think global warming is happening?” came from the pre-election wave of the ANES.) Here are predicted probabilities for saying global warming is real, based on who someone voted for and their political ideologies:

Ideology Trump Voter Other Voter
1 (very liberal) 91.34% 97.46%
2 87.96% 96.35%
3 83.52% 94.78%
4 77.91% 92.62%
5 71.09% 89.66%
6 63.20% 85.74%
7 (very conservative) 54.56% 80.68%

What Causes Global Warming?

Finally, let’s take a look at the follow-up question: “do you think a rise in the world’s temperatures would be caused mostly by human activity, natural causes, or about equally human activity and natural causes?” People who had said they don’t believe the earth is warming were asked to assume it is for this follow-up question. (They were overwhelmingly willing to give an answer instead of refusing to answer.) 38.8 percent said mostly human activity, 18.2 percent said mostly natural causes, and 43 percent said the two were roughly equal.

I re-ordered the responses for an ordered logit model. In this model, positive regression coefficients mean a respondent moves closer to saying climate change is mostly caused by human activity.

warming-humancause

There is a whole lot to talk about here. Let’s start with the biggest coefficient. People who said global warming is probably happening were much more likely to say human activity is causing global warming. It may seem so obvious that these go together that treating one variable as a cause and the other as an effect is a bit weird. Normally I would agree. However, these questions come one after the other. This gives us a good transition to talk about how to persuade people. Scholars tend to agree that it’s hard to change someone’s mind once they are dead set on an issue. It’s easier to get someone to form new associations about an issue than directly countering their position. It’s even easier to prompt people by reminding them of something they know. Most people know the Earth is getting warmer. Reminding them of this may make it easier to associate certain human activity with rising temperatures.

Most of the other variables operate like we’d expect. Older respondents, males and African Americans were all closer to the “mostly natural causes” side. People who gave the secular answer “the Bible was written by men” were a bit more likely to say humans are also responsible for climate change. However, college graduates were not significantly more likely to say this, after controlling for other variables. Respondents’ feelings of warmth towards scientists barely made a dent in what they thought about climate change.

In many ways, positions on climate change appear to be a way that respondents express their political identity. I think this actually makes a lot of sense. Let’s assume we all want to secure freedom, prosperity and happiness for ourselves and our children. That’s a really big goal. It’s also a really hard goal. How do we get there? If the world provided one clear answer that stood head and shoulders above the rest, we’d all flock to it. However, human behavior is far too complex and unpredictable. When people have broad goals and don’t really know how to achieve them, they tend to adopt various rituals.

Moving away from fossil fuels could have a major impact on people’s day-to-day lives. Large sections of America take commuting by car for granted. Cutting back on cars could mean massive changes in when people work and how much time we can spend with loved ones. Some people would lose jobs. Others would find better jobs. Cutting back on things like air conditioning could have a serious impact on Americans’ quality of life. Of course, so could rising oceans and unpredictable freakish weather.

When I look at these results, I can’t help but wonder if people say the climate is not changing or human activity doesn’t cause climate change because they are terrified of having to change their daily routines. I can sympathize with that. Change is hard. All of us who have had to make some change in our personal or professional lives know how hard change can be. It’s not surprising that people who don’t want to change their behavior on the environment would flock towards conservatism, particularly the nostalgic sloganeering of “Make America Great Again.”

I understand why people get so angry at climate change deniers, but I can’t quite tap in to that anger myself. The stakes are too high. If talking to people about their fears gets them to understand how anxiety leads to poor decisions, that’s better for the environment than any yelling or screaming we are capable of.

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Stepping Away From the Rage

You might be surprised that I went dark for a few weeks after the election, but now I am writing a flurry of posts. I’ve actually had some of these posts written in draft form for weeks. I wanted to wait out the circular firing squad that I’m seeing on left-leaning social media. Unfortunately, it’s December and the circular firing squad isn’t going away. The absurdity is getting a bit much, so I’ve got to say my peace and move on.

As someone who spent years studying how different news organizations gravitated towards different topics in the 2008 election, I expected the same in 2016. Candidates have different things they care about, different priorities for the country. They also gravitate towards issues that poll well for them. We saw this kind of asymmetry in the primaries. Bernie Sanders was all about income inequality and then added political reform to reflect his struggles under DNC rules and new followers’ anger towards the DNC. Hillary Clinton emphasized race and gender to try and capture Obama’s base along with her foreign policy experience. For Republicans, Ted Cruz emphasized local government and Christian values. John Kasich emphasized pragmatic experience. Donald Trump emphasized immigration, trade and being an outsider who could make better deals to clean up DC.

In the general election, both sides converged on the campaign agenda. Trump made his campaign about his own personality, and Clinton agreed to make the campaign about Trump. People talked about race and gender largely via reference to Trump’s behavior and critiques of Trump. That’s why it feels like he has a mandate and why many on the left feel so devastated. I think a lot of progressive put all their eggs in the “make this election a referendum on Trump” basket and it didn’t quite work out. The symmetry of Campaign 2016 is part of why it got so nasty.

I’ll get back to this idea of symmetry and how it is haunting Democrats’ attempts to process the election in a bit. First it is important to recognize just how narrow Trump’s victory was. As a sports fan, I know narrow championship defeats feel much worse than getting blown out. A whole bunch of things had to break in Donald Trump’s favor or against Hillary Clinton. This list is adapted from a longer list David Roberts offered at Vox of possible reasons for Clinton’s loss. I’m not always a fan of Roberts’ work, but he did a good job in the beginning of his essay laying out all the explanations that other progressives have offered:

  • An unpopular candidate in Clinton
  • Poor Clinton strategy on which states to focus on
  • Lack of Clinton outreach to white working class / rural voters
  • Too much emphasis on Trump’s character vs. Clinton’s economic plan
  • The FBI, Russian hackers, Wikileaks all worked against Clinton
  • The media emphasized Clinton’s e-mails over any other story
  • Voter restrictions in states like North Carolina
  • The electoral college made Trump votes more valuable
  • Voters may have disproportionately chose third party candidates over Clinton
  • Racial and gender politics driving at least some voters to Trump as opposed to disqualifying him in voters’ minds.

After giving his long list, Roberts offers one of the more insightful things I have seen any Democrat say after the election:

Like everyone, I buy some of these more than others. But there are bits and pieces of evidence for all of them. Some of them don’t hold up on their own — voter suppression probably didn’t swing the election, nor did third-party candidates — but all of them plausibly played a role or have some grain of truth.

Even before giving the list of what went wrong, Roberts explains what went right. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. By the time all the votes are counted, Clinton should have the second highest vote total of anyone who has run for President of the United States. Trump earned 2.4 million fewer votes and squeaked through the Electoral College. Since Trump had such a narrow victory, it’s easy to say that Clinton would have won if just one thing broke differently.

I think this is why there has been so much unproductive finger pointing on the left. Clinton came so close to winning that everyone can convince themselves “I held up my end! It’s that other part of the Democratic coalition that let us down!” For starters, here’s Bernie Sanders:

You may recall that Sanders’ biggest problem in the beginning of his campaign was emphasizing economics almost exclusively. He said racial inequality was secondary to class. Black Lives Matter activists targeted his rallies for protests, charging the stage a few times. Sanders moved towards the left on race for the primary. But now that the Democrats lost the general election, Sanders is saying he was right all along. He hasn’t exactly been received warmly by other progressives.

Roberts posted these tweets in his Vox piece and then piled on:

There isn’t a ton of evidence that an economically populist message — divorced of appeals to xenophobia or white resentment — moves the WWC. In fact, as Andrew Prokop notes, “In two of those crucial Midwestern states that flipped to Trump, Democratic Senate candidates [Russ Feingold and Ted Strickland] campaigned on economically populist platforms — but they did notably worse than Hillary Clinton.”

Why is that?

Perhaps because politicians know, though won’t say, that appeals to xenophobia and white resentment work. If I may coin a phrase: It’s the white resentment, stupid.

I’m not sure I would want to build any kind of broad, sweeping theory over two data points. Feingold and Strickland were both politicians who tried to restart their careers after being voted out of statewide office. They both lost to incumbent Republicans. Defeating an incumbent is difficult! It’s hard to ignore incumbency and these Democrats’ previous losses unless you are so convinced race is the only answer that you ignore every other possibility. I have to admit, this is where I found Roberts very hard to follow. It feels like he’s ready to concede Ohio, Wisconsin, and every other state with a significant rural white population. Can that be right? Sorry, but I’m not one to throw in the towel.

Maybe there’s a weakness in the progressive coalition. Once someone is convinced that there is one best explanation, there’s a tendency to point fingers at every progressive who offers a different top priority.

Most of us have a wide range of priorities. If a pollster asked “what is the single biggest problem facing America today?” I could give a clear answer. Give me a minute and I can give issue #2 and #3. We prioritize how much we care about politics too. We can prioritize what kinds of things are dealbreakers on a first date and what we want most out of a career. Setting priorities is one of the basic things we do as people. It’s a basic thing for successful organizations as well. But when progressives say they care about one issue more than another, other members of the progressive coalition attack them for “selling out” part of the group.

The Republicans have their nasty fights too. How often has Ted Cruz accused someone of “selling out” conservative principles? However, the large Christian conservative faction embraced Donald Trump, a man who repeatedly worked with Playboy (should have checked his IMDB page). At the end of the day, most Republicans prioritized winning the White House over anything else, so they voted for Trump. After the election, Democrats are currently fighting a nasty battle about whether to prioritize broadening the party to win elections or ideological purity over race and racism. Anyone who wants to do any kind of political advocacy is going to face questions of how much to focus on ideological purity versus attracting a broad audience. These aren’t easy questions, and the answer probably depends on what you want to accomplish.

Progressives are currently fighting over one of the toughest issues they have ever confronted: how to argue against racism. There is no research that suggests calling someone a racist will cause them to say “aww, shucks, you were right!” Professors who study political persuasion tend to agree that immediately dismissing someone as racist, sexist or homophobic may be one of the least persuasive arguments out there. As I was writing this, this very premise of making political arguments that could persuade other people came under attack in certain academic circles:

Taking these tweetstorms at face value doesn’t add up. My hunch is that there is just enough of an unspoken difference in priorities for people to get angry with each other. Goff wants to focus on more active racists and define a set of behaviors or attitudes as unacceptable. Singal’s priority is thinking of how to best communicate with people who don’t explicitly endorse racism but voted for Trump anyway. Reading these back and forth tweets as an outsider, I think everyone is working with a different definition of what “persuasion” means.

When I taught students about political persuasion, I tried to move them away from the idea of flipping someone’s opinion on an issue. I knew the students who would care most about my lecture were people who felt very strongly on one side of an issue or issues, and they hated people on the other side. So I started the lesson by explaining that if someone is strongly committed, they are going to be incredibly difficult to budge. However, most people aren’t that strongly committed on most issues. The less committed can be nudged and prodded to care about the issues we care about. Instead of trying to convert the worst of the worst, I would try to prod the less committed to say “oh, ok, I’ll do it your way if I get a little something in return.”

There’s an interesting parallel to protests here. You might think protesters are all ideologues jumping up and down. It turns out that successful protests are focused on particular issues and tolerant of ideological differences. Setting priorities is critical. Positive priorities – explaining to people what you want to do – are far more successful than protesting just to critique someone. Effective protesters get friends and family in the door via social networks and worry about ideology later. Ziad Munson, who studied the pro-life movement, argued the right is far more successful at this. Think about all the sniping coming from different corners of the left. It’s a minefield! How many people do you think would look at the circular firing squad and say sign me up?

Other successful organizations tend to focus on their strengths and mitigate weaknesses. Let’s think of the Trump campaign. Trump excels at putting on a show, conveying emotion, and provoking people. He is weak at policy. He made his campaign about conveying emotions and provoking opponents to near constant distraction. To borrow from sports, Donald Trump set the tempo for this campaign. Hillary Clinton and other progressives were happy to play at this tempo, waging their own emotional campaign. I feel like I have to re-state this for emphasis. Donald Trump waged a highly asymmetrical campaign, but Clinton and other progressives decided to engage on Trump’s terms. It sort of worked too. Clinton was relatively weak at conveying emotion. She would have fared better if people focused on policy. And she still got more votes!

But Hillary Clinton is moving on. It’s time to think of Democrats’ strengths. This is more than a bit nerve wracking. Democrats’ main strength in this election was getting more aggregate votes for the presidency and the Senate, but Trump won the Electoral College and Republicans control the Senate. Republicans control the House and dominate at the local level. Yes, the electoral map favors the Republicans. But the only way to change the system is to get large majorities within the current system.

With all the anger surrounding the election and post-election squabbling, I started dreaming of a very different kind of government. Imagine a city where there were concerts outside city hall every week during the summer. It’s not a partisan rally. It’s not even a political thing. City Hall just happens to have a nice courtyard that makes for a great, low cost outdoor venue. Some people wander by for a few minutes before going to one of the local bars or movie theaters. Other people bring their lawn furniture. This is a regular summertime event next to one of my favorite coffee shops. When I dropped by to check out one of the larger concerts, I kind of got the feeling some people go every week. The band is great. Everyone feels welcome, like they belong in the community.

In 2016, the Democrats are the only major political party with the potential to imagine a society where everyone has the potential to make a valuable contribution, and everyone feels like they have the right to belong. Who wouldn’t want to live in a positive place where we all work hard to support each other and lift each other up?

Trump held a lot of rallies, but there was always suspicion and demonization of interlopers. He campaigned on the idea that no matter how much our neighbors have sacrificed to make America great, only a certain group of loyalists count as “true Americans.”

Our country was founded on an idea that people were created equal, with certain unalienable rights. We founded a democracy under the idea that giving people the right to choose their leaders was the best way to promote life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That doesn’t mean everyone was granted full citizenship right away. Every generation had its doubts about whether certain “undesirables” deserved the right to vote. Over time, we let more and more people vote and become full members of the community. There was fear. There was anger. But each time America emerged full of vibrant life, with liberty and happiness for more of our community.

I understand why people feel angry and outraged. I understand why people think resisting Donald Trump’s massive disregard for the Constitution requires picking fights at every turn. Remember, picking fights at every turn is Trump’s strategy. Are there progressives out there who think the best plan is to try and beat Donald Trump at his own game? If you oppose Trump’s attempts to deny Americans equality and unalienable rights, you can’t campaign on a message that many Americans are too stupid or biased to possibly be redeemed. Those emotions are too discordant. Democrats are the only political party that could imagine a future full of life, liberty and happiness for everyone currently living in the United States. That vision only works if everyone thinks they could be welcomed in to our community.

 


Why Journalists Fail

The first time I ever supervised workers could have been a disaster. I was hired to train and supervise a group of undergraduates who were reading news articles and then answering various questions about the content. It’s a common research method in communications, with well-established training protocols. You go over expectations, then give everyone a few articles to review individually. The supervisor (me) looks over initial work to see how well the new employees understand what they’ve been asked to do. I got a group of undergraduates who couldn’t even agree whether the article was printed on the top half of the page!

How could half the students get this question wrong? A lot of the questions in content analysis are subjective. For example, is this story portraying someone negatively? That’s why communication scholars require multiple coders to review the same article – they want to see how much coders agree. This story was printed at the top of the page. Every coder should be able to say so! Was I stuck with a group where half the students were lazy? Stupid? Unable to follow simple directions? Was I going to have to tell the professor supervising the project that he needed to fire some people?

The professor wanted me to meet with the undergrads as a group before I gave any additional individual feedback. I didn’t know the team, so I decided not to start the meeting by yelling and screaming. Instead, I asked them what their experience was like doing the work and answering questions in the online form we provided. The undergrads immediately brought up several problems with the form. Almost every question was on one long page, so they had to keep scrolling down. No one knew how to answer “is this coverage positive or negative?” for the story that contained both positive and negative portrayals of the featured politician. After 20-30 minutes I asked about the “is this story at the top of the page?” debacle. Everyone said yeah its at the top of the page. Then one student pointed out this question was one item in a series of checkboxes. It wasn’t a mandatory yes-no question, so they completely missed it.

By the end of the meeting I was convinced that these undergraduates all worked hard, but they were put in a position where dedication was unlikely to pay off with good work. I told the professor that the problem was with the form, and we came up with a long list of changes. The team’s attitude was a little worse for the second round of training – it’s hard to have as much enthusiasm the second time around – but they did much better work since now we put them in a position to succeed. There’s an important story here about how to lead and inspire employees to get the most out of them, particularly when working with a new team. (Of course, there are also times when it’s important to crack the whip, but I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus here.)

I think this story is also a powerful metaphor for how we tend to think of journalism. The easiest thing to do is to look at journalists’ final work product and then pick apart the failings. It’s easy to get mad because most journalism will have imperfections. But does this mean journalists themselves are lazy, stupid or immoral? Are journalists put in a position where it is hard to succeed? To see a columnist wrestling with both possibilities, let’s turn to Jim Newell of Slate discussing Trump’s press conference a week ago at the opening of Trump’s new hotel. Reporters expected direct Q&A about whether Trump was going to renounce his claim that Obama was born outside the United States, but got something different:

“It was about 10 minutes in, after two or three introductory speakers and an enthusiastic plug from Donald Trump for his new downtown property, that the cry of Admiral Ackbar began sounding in the core of my being. It’s a trapI’m an extra in a bad commercial.

[snip]

Things went very differently. The press conference proved instead to be Trump’s troll of the media, a rick-roll—as everyone called it later—on the grand scale. It was effortlessly brought off and all it required was a manipulation of media incentives and cable news control-room politics, plus a carefully arranged use of space and taxpayer-funded security detail. You can have all your earnest thinkpieces about false balance and the like; Trump’s event on Friday was enacted media criticism.”

It’s the last line that gets me. Most of Newell’s piece is about the Trump campaign’s strategy and how they took advantage of a predictable opponent. Media criticism generally implies moral arguments about how journalists are doing a bad job and should have done something else. My friends who shared Newell’s story portrayed the event as a journalistic moral failure. But Newell’s main point is that journalists were set up to fail. He, along with every other journalist covering the event, eventually realized it. Then they got angry and tried “small” measures of revenge. In my experience this revenge isn’t always “small,” – if Newell is like I was then he’d want to do more to Trump’s team than just write this column.

As I’ve implied in previous posts, its very hard to get people to think strategically about journalism. Audiences want to see bad journalism as a moral failure, not a strategic failure based on journalists’ limited access to information. If reporters knew what Trump was going to do, they’d exclude him. But since there was a chance that Trump would give a major story, every national reporter had to take a chance on him. For all we know, if most media outlets anticipated the Trump trap and stayed away, Trump may have gone ahead with a straight-forward news conference to shame the media. It’s easy to put journalists in a bad position, particularly when audiences will just read the news story and then blame the media.

Maybe it’s easier for me to accept when journalists lose a competition with politicians because I’ve lost many times. Maybe it’s because I’m a baseball fan, and I know even the best major league baseball team loses at least 1/3 of its games. The other side has pros too, and sometimes they win. That’s why I taught students to look under the hood and think about how people work, not just the final product. If you want better journalism, don’t just yell and scream about it. Think of ways to put journalists in a better position. I think one of the most effective options would be to pay more for higher quality content – essentially paying journalists to be selective and not to write up every minor event to fulfill quotas and generate hits.