I recently reread James Surowiecki’s book “The Wisdom of Crowds” which, despite its name, spends as much time contemplating the shortcomings of such wisdom as it does celebrating its successes. Surowiecki argues that crowds usually make good predictions when they satisfy these four conditions:“The Real Story Of 2016” | Nate Silver
Diversity of opinion. “Each person should have private information, even if it’s just an eccentric interpretation of the known facts.”
Independence. “People’s opinions are not determined by the opinions of those around them.”
Decentralization. “People are able to specialize and draw on local knowledge.”
Aggregation. “Some mechanism exists for turning private judgments into a collective decision.”
Political journalism scores highly on the fourth condition, aggregation. While Surowiecki usually has something like a financial or betting market in mind when he refers to “aggregation,” the broader idea is that there’s some way for individuals to exchange their opinions instead of keeping them to themselves. And my gosh, do political journalists have a lot of ways to share their opinions with one another, whether through their columns, at major events such as the political conventions or, especially, through Twitter.
But those other three conditions? Political journalism fails miserably along those dimensions.
Diversity of opinion? For starters, American newsrooms are not very diverse along racial or gender lines, and it’s not clear the situation is improving much.6 And in a country where educational attainment is an increasingly important predictor of cultural and political behavior, some 92 percent of journalists have college degrees. A degree didn’t used to be a de facto prerequisite7 for a reporting job; just 70 percent of journalists had college degrees in 1982 and only 58 percent did in 1971.
The political diversity of journalists is not very strong, either. As of 2013, only 7 percent of them identified as Republicans (although only 28 percent called themselves Democrats with the majority saying they were independents). And although it’s not a perfect approximation — in most newsrooms, the people who issue endorsements are not the same as the ones who do reporting — there’s reason to think that the industry was particularly out of sync with Trump. Of the major newspapers that endorsed either Clinton or Trump, only 3 percent (2 of 59) endorsed Trump. By comparison, 46 percent of newspapers to endorse either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney endorsed Romney in 2012. Furthermore, as the media has become less representative of right-of-center views — and as conservatives have rebelled against the political establishment — there’s been an increasing and perhaps self-reinforcing cleavage between conservative news and opinion outlets such as Breitbart and the rest of the media.
Although it’s harder to measure, I’d also argue that there’s a lack of diversity when it comes to skill sets and methods of thinking in political journalism. Publications such as Buzzfeed or (the now defunct) Gawker.com get a lot of shade from traditional journalists when they do things that challenge conventional journalistic paradigms. But a lot of traditional journalistic practices are done by rote or out of habit, such as routinely granting anonymity to staffers to discuss campaign strategy even when there isn’t much journalistic merit in it. Meanwhile, speaking from personal experience, I’ve found the reception of “data journalists” by traditional journalists to be unfriendly, although there have been exceptions.
Independence? This is just as much of a problem. Crowds can be wise when people do a lot of thinking for themselves before coming together to exchange their views. But since at least the days of “The Boys on the Bus,” political journalism has suffered from a pack mentality. Events such as conventions and debates literally gather thousands of journalists together in the same room; attend one of these events, and you can almost smell the conventional wisdom being manufactured in real time. (Consider how a consensus formed that Romney won the first debate in 2012 when it had barely even started, for instance.) Social media — Twitter in particular — can amplify these information cascades, with a single tweet receiving hundreds of thousands of impressions and shaping the way entire issues are framed. As a result, it can be largely arbitrary which storylines gain traction and which ones don’t. What seems like a multiplicity of perspectives might just be one or two, duplicated many times over.
Decentralization? Surowiecki writes about the benefit of local knowledge, but the political news industry has become increasingly consolidated in Washington and New York as local newspapers have suffered from a decade-long contraction. That doesn’t necessarily mean local reporters in Wisconsin or Michigan or Ohio should have picked up Trumpian vibrations on the ground in contradiction to the polls. But as we’ve argued, national reporters often flew into these states with pre-baked narratives — for instance, that they were “decreasingly representative of contemporary America” — and fit the facts to suit them, neglecting their importance to the Electoral College. A more geographically decentralized reporting pool might have asked more questions about why Clinton wasn’t campaigning in Wisconsin, for instance, or why it wasn’t more of a problem for her that she was struggling in polls of traditional bellwethers such as Ohio and Iowa. If local newspapers had been healthier economically, they might also have commissioned more high-quality state polls; the lack of good polling was a problem in Michigan and Wisconsin especially.
There was once a notion that whatever challenges the internet created for journalism’s business model, it might at least lead readers to a more geographically and philosophically diverse array of perspectives. But it’s not clear that’s happening, either. Instead, based on data from the news aggregation site Memeorandum, the top news sources (such as the Times, The Washington Post and Politico) have earned progressively more influence over the past decade:
The share of total exposure for the top five news sources climbed from roughly 25 percent a decade ago to around 35 percent last year, and has spiked to above 40 percent so far in 2017. While not a perfect measure1, this is one sign the digital age hasn’t necessarily democratized the news media. Instead, the most notable difference in Memeorandum sources between 2007 and 2017 is the decline of independent blogs; many of the most popular ones from the late ’aughts either folded or (like FiveThirtyEight) were bought by larger news organizations. Thus, blogs and local newspapers — two of the better checks on Northeast Corridor conventional wisdom run amok — have both had less of a say in the conversation.
All things considered, then, the conditions of political journalism are poor for crowd wisdom and ripe for groupthink. So … what to do about it, then?