November 11, 2012

The Nate Silver Effect

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Nate Silver is looking pretty darn smart right now. After correctly predicting the winner of all 50 states in last week’s presidential election, the statistician and New York Times blogger is basking in the glow of his overnight shot to stardom. His book sales are up 850 percent, and he’s smirking on the sidelines as T.V.’s highest rated pundits and commentators struggle to explain just how their election night forecasts could have been so downright wrong.It was the ultimate David vs. Goliath battle: In one corner, Silver’s no-fluff mathematical model based on easily accessible polling and economic figures. In the other corner, the mainstream media and their flashy insider sources, long-winded narratives about candidate momentum and headline-grabbing hunches. At the end of the night though, the number-crunching trumped the bloviating. Silver’s win isn’t just a victory for the humble math nerds; it’s a wake-up call for the news media industry as a whole.Good political journalism is the cornerstone of an effective democracy. Without access to political information, citizens are unable to engage in democratic discourse or make informed decisions about how they are governed. Yet, today’s media climate, mired in punditry and dripping with bias, is far from meeting those needs. Nate Silver’s methods offered a refreshing contrast to the talking heads we’re sick and tired of seeing. But if he’s so successful, why aren’t there more academics in the news business?The answer comes down to the simple economics of supply and demand. The news media is a tricky thing. It provides an invaluable resource for uninformed citizens, but at the same time, it’s a profit-driven machine as well. It used to be that, if you wanted to find out what was going on in the world, your choices were limited. Either you turned on the television and watched one of three network news stations, or you opened up a newspaper. These days, we are drowning in a sea of information. In the age of new media, there are so many outlets for information dissemination that anyone with an Internet connection can broadcast their opinions. Open up a web browser, and ideas are pelted helter-skelter at you. And with the ongoing 24 hour news cycle, you literally do have to live in a cave in order to miss out. But we can have too much of a good thing, and information is no exception.As our media options multiply, competition between news outlets grows fiercer. Gone are the days when audiences were satisfied tuning in to the six o’clock news and listening to Walter Cronkite telling it like it was. Today, it’s not enough to be informed by the news: We want to be entertained. We want to see Rachel Maddow bash those conservatives on Fox. We want to see Jon Stewart commentate the news with snide remarks and sarcastic eye rolls. We want to see if fists fly when Ann Coulter and Bill Maher are left to air out their disagreements. No-frills journalism can no longer compete with the cult of personalities that dominates cable television news, and this is a problem.The line between hard news and commentary is becoming increasingly blurry. Instead of watching the NBC Nightly News in the evening, we’re more likely to get our news from our favorite T.V. personalities. Cable T.V. producers are happy because high ratings translate into big bucks. And on top of that, talk shows are cheap and easy to produce! There are no archival documents to dig through, no war-ravaged countries to visit, no press conferences to attend. The only thing political commentators have to do to put on a good show is draw upon the work of hard news reporters and offer their own personal spin on the facts. Audiences would rather watch a raving mad, spittle flying Bill O’Reilly rant for an hour than a live shot from behind enemy lines in Syria anyway. But where does this leave us — the actively engaged citizens looking for ways to inform our political decisions? Well, it leaves us with a room full of opining B-list celebrities all trying to drown out the competition, and it leaves us with a severe shortage of facts.As hard news and investigative reporting become less profitable, these types of news organizations are likely to face more shrinking budgets and falling ratings. But it doesn’t have to be this way, and we, as viewers, have the power to change that. If the Election 2012 pundit blunders have taught us anything, it’s that opinions don’t qualify as evidence. No amount of flowery verbiage can replace good, old-fashioned fact-checking, on-the-ground reporting or even basic math.

Joyce Wu is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at jw637@cornellsun.com. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Joyce Wu