Chinese Universities Are Enshrining Communist Party Control In Their Charters

Sigh. As some have noted, has potential implications in terms of how other countries treat Chinese degrees:

It wasn’t just the fact that one of China’s best universities had changed its charter last December to emphasize loyalty to the ruling Communist Party that raised eyebrows. Shanghai’s Fudan University also deleted principles like freedom of thought, and did so publicly, as if expecting praise.

Furious students staged a rare and risky protest in the school cafeteria in December. They sang the school’s anthem, which praises academic freedom.

“Everyone was enraged,” one of the student protesters told NPR. She withheld her name because of the almost certain repercussions for speaking publicly on the matter.

To disguise their protest plans, the students publicized the event as a marriage proposal.

Fudan is one of at least three universities that have revised their charters since 2018, emphasizing unswerving loyalty to the Communist Party, an NPR analysis found. They have downgraded or erased language about academic freedom from their charters, while adding a new clause: “The university Communist Party committee is the core leadership of the school.”

The move is part of a broader trend that has been growing since 2013, the year Xi Jinping became China’s president. From 2013 to 2017, at least 109 universities unveiled their first-ever charters, affirming party leadership, according to NPR’s analysis.

The new charters effectively hand the party ultimate control over the schools’ administration, mirroring how the party dominates government agencies.

Some of China’s most prestigious universities, including Beijing’s Peking University and Renmin University, have new charters. And Nanjing University, which amended its charter in December, has a prominent international studies program jointly administered with Johns Hopkins University.

Academic freedom has always been precarious in China, although the 2000s saw a brief liberalization. But since Xi took office, academics say, ideological constraints have intensified, stifling discourse and innovation at home even as China seeks a global footprint in academia.

There are still some holdouts. For example, East China Normal University and Wuhan University — which have joint-venture campuses in the Shanghai area with New York University and Duke University, respectively — have not amended their charters, which still contain commitments to academic freedom.

But at the universities that have adopted pro-party charters, say academics interviewed by NPR, the rule change encapsulates some of the difficulties that educators face in China.

“I think it is a good thing that charters now reflect reality more accurately,” says Qiao Mu, who once taught journalism at Beijing Foreign Studies University. He left China for the U.S. in 2017 after his career was stymied because of his political outspokenness. “Why include all this pretty language about democratic freedom and freedom of thought if there is none of that?”

Teachers punished

Cao Zhenhua has experienced the restraints firsthand. In 2018, he was fired as a lecturer at Guizhou Minzu University after being accused of questioning the current relevance of Marxism in a seminar.

“The university party secretary, institute director and local party officials tried to move me to library duties because of my political problems, but I put up a huge fight,” Cao remembers. Four professors were docked pay, but because Cao pushed back on his punishment, he was dismissed.

“This kind of ideological thinking is like that of the class-struggle sessions during the Cultural Revolution,” Cao says, referring to a violent period in the 1960s and 1970s in China when Chairman Mao Zedong sought to root out political enemies.

Universities’ local party representatives, backed by an emboldened public security apparatus, increasingly call the shots at school. When Yang Shaozheng, a former economics professor at Guizhou University, came under fire in 2018 for writing and commenting critically on Chinese politics, public security officials called him in and reprimanded him.

“They said, ‘You can no longer use case studies drawn from reality in your lectures. You also must stop publishing political essays online.’ They told me, ‘Shut your stinking mouth.’ I told them, as a university professor, what I choose to talk about is my right,” Yang recounts, his voice rising in anger at the memory.

University administrators did not defend him. Yang was fired that August.

Campus party informants

Much of the control on campuses is implemented through low-tech means: human monitors. Students say classes are quietly seeded with student party members, who secretly report what teachers and students opine during lectures to party committees and school counselors.

“It took so much effort to say even one phrase. You had to pay attention to people’s expressions. One person might hear me and agree. But another person might hear me and report me. I could not give lectures in such circumstances, short of simply reading from the textbook,” says You Shengdong.

You, an economics professor, was sacked in 2018 from Xiamen University, he says, after unknown students reported him for criticizing slogans used by Chinese leader Xi and the growing role of inefficient state-owned enterprises in the economy. Administrators, threatening to draw on footage taken from cameras installed in his classroom, sided with the students who reported him.

Notices at Shaanxi Normal University, one of the three universities that publicly changed their charters to reflect party loyalty in December, detail the responsibilities of student spies, or “information officers,” as they are officially called. These informants must possess “a certain level of political sensitivity,” the notices say, and must report on student and teacher opinions regarding school and national policies as well as any “major social events.”

“We simply keep an eye on things,” says an undergraduate information officer at Peking University who declined to be named because of the political sensitivity of this work.

December’s anthem-singing protest at Fudan University illustrates just how such a monitoring network can mobilize to quickly control small-scale incidents.

A student who created the chat group to organize the protest deleted the group from WeChat, a popular Chinese social media app, in the early morning hours before the event, after his school counselor got wind of the scheme and pressured him to withdraw.

University counselors assigned to students are responsible for their “political thought education,” to make sure they are both on track academically and also steering clear of political activities, according to university hiring notices.

The day after the singing protest, members of the party youth league at Fudan University posted a prewritten statement on WeChat: “The school anthem remains the same. Not only does Fudan have academic independence and freedom of thought, but it also educates the country’s future leaders, strengthens the university and protects the country. The determination that led us to Fudan in the first place hasn’t changed. If given a second chance, I’d still choose Fudan.” Professors who posted veiled statements of support for the protest on WeChat were told to take their posts down.

“I thought Fudan was relatively free. But oftentimes, what the students are told has already been censored from above,” says the Fudan student protester.

“How can innovation happen in a society like this?” asks Shi Jiepeng, a classical-Chinese expert who is now a visiting scholar at University of Tokyo. Shi was also singled out by party inspectors three years ago because of remarks he had made about deceased Chinese leaders such as Mao and Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty.

Anonymous calls from people allegedly offended by his comments also began pouring into his department’s office phone. Online trolls heaped abuse upon Shi on WeChat and another popular social platform, Weibo. Shi was eventually fired in July 2017 from his position as assistant professor of classical Chinese at Beijing Normal University.

He says his managers had received numerous complaints from students about remarks he had made in lectures in previous years, but his managers only quietly reprimanded him before dismissing the claims. “The problem is not that Chinese students and colleagues are reporting their professors. That phenomenon has always existed,” says Shi.

But now, Shi says, China’s political environment has changed in such a way that university administrators are receptive to such complaints and are pressured to take immediate action. “The problem is that the political winds have shifted at the top,” Shi says, “and that shift has been orchestrated by the political leaders themselves.”

Source: Chinese Universities Are Enshrining Communist Party Control In Their Charters

ICYMI – Cohen: Polarized politics, climate havoc, growing authoritarianism – a pessimist’s guide to our world in 2020

Depressing:

Last Saturday, on a holiday weekend, the Parliament of Spain convened for a series of crucial votes. Its purpose was to choose a new national government, which the country has been without since elections in November.

In reality, the political paralysis here has lasted years. The most recent elections were the fourth since 2017. This old society but young democracy is becoming ungovernable. Riven with regional, ethnic and ideological divisions, the middle ground – which has sustained governments in Spain – has disappeared.

On Tuesday, the Socialists narrowly won the confidence vote and will form a left-of-centre coalition. This happened only because the Catalans (a regional independence party) abstained.

Some wondered why the legislators were meeting over the holidays. A former Spanish diplomat told me: “You have to get a deal while you can. In Spain, you never know what’s going to happen.”

There is nothing new about uncertainty in politics, but it is a byword for today. Anxiety is the zeitgeist.

The rise of authoritarianism, advance of global warming and growing nationalism and religious intolerance define our time. Despite rising incomes and improving medicine, science and technology, it’s hard to be hopeful.

So here’s a pessimist’s guide to our world in 2020 – and beyond.

• In Germany, the engine of Europe, the economy narrowly avoided recession last year and Chancellor Angela Merkel is preparing to leave next year. Her “grand coalition” with the Social Democrats is faltering, and will collapse this year.

• In France, President Emmanuel Macron is personally unpopular and his reformist policies are widely opposed, bringing demonstrations and strikes, comme d’habitude, and a rising right.

• In Great Britain, there is more certainty. With a large majority and the Labour Party in disarray, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has wide latitude. Britain will leave the EU and Scotland will clamour to leave the United Kingdom. Scottish nationalists are pushing Westminster for another referendum on independence.

• In Israel, the paralysis continues. The country holds its third election in a year, this one with Benjamin Netanyahu under criminal indictment. Israel’s economy is strong and the prospect of peace is distant. Worse, Israelis don’t seem to care anymore.

• In Russia, Turkey, Hungary, India and beyond, strongmen continue to rule. There is little likelihood of change.

• In China, the aspirations of Hong Kong are a challenge to central authority, one that Beijing will mishandle. It cannot tolerate dissent. The protests will end violently in 2020.

• In the United States, an impeached (but exonerated) president will run for re-election. Democrats struggle to oppose him. Because several of them are well-financed, their race will go into the spring.

The pessimist argument is that Trump will win in November. More likely, Democrats will choose Joe Biden, who will choose Kamala Harris as his running mate (and his successor after only one term.) The Democrats will reclaim the Midwest and carry the day.

If they don’t, America under a re-elected, untethered Trump will enter a new dark age, akin to the Red Scare in the 1920s and McCarthyism in the 1950s.

In Canada, the Liberals will govern with ease this year. Conservatives will have no traction until early summer, but new leadership will scramble the political calculus. If they choose Rona Ambrose or Jean Charest, they will push for an early election, in 2021 or so. Trudeau will not run again.

There is no reason for optimism in discussing climate change, which goes unanswered around the world and in the United States, in particular. The fires burn hotter and longer in California, the seas rise off Florida, the tundra melts in Alaska.

The fires burning today in Australia are the future of our feverish world. This will become the norm. They show not only the fierceness of nature but a failure of leadership; the ineptitude of the country’s prime minister staggers.

Of all the challenges we face today – war with Iran, growing authoritarianism, a belligerent North Korea, swelling anti-semitism – climate change is the greatest threat, the hardest to solve and most resistant to hope.

Source: Cohen: Polarized politics, climate havoc, growing authoritarianism – a pessimist’s guide to our world in 2020

Two States. Eight Textbooks. Two American Stories.

Would be interesting to see a Quebec and Ontario comparison, and an Alberta and Ontario one, although the small size of the Canadian market likely means less variation in texts for English Canada:

The textbooks cover the same sweeping story, from the brutality of slavery to the struggle for civil rights. The self-evident truths of the founding documents to the waves of immigration that reshaped the nation.

The books have the same publisher. They credit the same authors. But they are customized for students in different states, and their contents sometimes diverge in ways that reflect the nation’s deepest partisan divides.

Hundreds of differences — some subtle, others extensive — emerged in a New York Times analysis of eight commonly used American history textbooks in California and Texas, two of the nation’s largest markets.

In a country that cannot come to a consensus on fundamental questions — how restricted capitalism should be, whether immigrants are a burden or a boon, to what extent the legacy of slavery continues to shape American life — textbook publishers are caught in the middle. On these questions and others, classroom materials are not only shaded by politics, but are also helping to shape a generation of future voters.

Conservatives have fought for schools to promote patriotism, highlight the influence of Christianity and celebrate the founding fathers. In a September speech, President Trump warned against a “radical left” that wants to “erase American history, crush religious liberty, indoctrinate our students with left-wing ideology.”

The left has pushed for students to encounter history more from the ground up than from the top down, with a focus on the experiences of marginalized groups such as enslaved people, women and Native Americans.

The books The Times analyzed were published in 2016 or later and have been widely adopted for eighth and 11th graders, though publishers declined to share sales figures. Each text has editions for Texas and California, among other states, customized to satisfy policymakers with different priorities.

“At the end of the day, it’s a political process,” said Jesús F. de la Teja, an emeritus professor of history at Texas State University who has worked for the state of Texas and for publishers in reviewing standards and textbooks.

The differences between state editions can be traced back to several sources: state social studies standards; state laws; and feedback from panels of appointees that huddle, in Sacramento and Austin hotel conference rooms, to review drafts.

Requests from textbook review panels, submitted in painstaking detail to publishers, show the sometimes granular ways that ideology can influence the writing of history.

A California panel asked the publisher McGraw-Hill to avoid the use of the word “massacre” when describing 19th-century Native American attacks on white people. A Texas panel asked Pearson to point out the number of clergy who signed the Declaration of Independence, and to state that the nation’s founders were inspired by the Protestant Great Awakening.

All the members of the California panel were educators selected by the State Board of Education, whose members were appointed by former Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat. The Texas panel, appointed by the Republican-dominated State Board of Education, was made up of educators, parents, business representatives and a Christian pastor and politician.

McGraw-Hill, the publisher whose annotated Bill of Rights appears differently in the two states, said it had created the additional wording on the Second Amendment and gun control for the California textbook. A national version of the pages is similar to the Texas edition, which does not call attention to gun rights, the company said in a written statement.

Pearson, the publisher whose Texas textbook raises questions about the quality of Harlem Renaissance literature, said such language “adds more depth and nuance.”

Critical language about nonwhite cultural movements also appears in a Texas book from McGraw-Hill. It is partly a result of debates, in 2010, between conservative and liberal members of the Texas Board of Education over whether state standards should mention cultural movements like hip-hop and country music. Their compromise was to ask teachers and textbook publishers to address “both the positive and negative impacts” of artistic movements.

Texas struck that requirement in 2018, but its most recent textbooks, published in 2016, will reflect it for years to come.

Publishers are eager to please state policymakers of both parties, during a challenging time for the business. Schools are transitioning to digital materials. And with the ease of internet research, many teachers say they prefer to curate their own primary-source materials online.

How Textbooks are Produced
1Authors, often academics, write a national version of each text.
2Publishers customize the books for states and large districts to meet local standards, often without input from the original authors.
3State or district textbook reviewers go over each book and ask publishers for further changes.
4Publishers revise their books and sell them to districts and schools.

Still, recent textbooks have come a long way from what was published in past decades. Both Texas and California volumes deal more bluntly with the cruelty of the slave trade, eschewing several myths that were common in textbooks for generations: that some slave owners treated enslaved people kindly and that African-Americans were better off enslaved than free. The books also devote more space to the women’s movement and balance the narrative of European immigration with stories of Latino and Asian immigrants.

“American history is not anymore the story of great white men,” said Albert S. Broussard, a history professor at Texas A&M University and an author of both the Texas and California editions of McGraw-Hill’s textbooks.

Here is how the politics of American history play out in California and Texas textbooks, on subjects like race, immigration, gender, sexuality and the economy.

White resistance to black progress is covered differently in the two states.

McGraw-Hill, “United States History & Geography: Continuity and Change,” California, P. 505

California notes the suburban dream of the 1950s was inaccessible to many African-Americans.

McGraw-Hill, “United States History Since 1877,” Texas, P. 436

Texas does not.

California and Texas textbooks sometimes offer different explanations for white backlash to black advancement after the Civil War, from Reconstruction to housing discrimination in the 20th century.

Southern whites resisted Reconstruction, according to a McGraw-Hill textbook, because they “did not want African-Americans to have more rights.” But the Texas edition offers an additional reason: Reforms cost money, and that meant higher taxes.

Whole paragraphs on redlining and restrictive deeds appear only in the California editions of textbooks, partly as a result of different state standards. Texas’ social studies guidelines do not mention housing discrimination at all.

CALIFORNIA
TEXAS
TAKEAWAY

Texas says that white Southerners opposed Reconstruction because of tax increases as well as racial resentment. California instead includes primary-source quotations from black historical figures about white resistance to civil rights.

McGraw-Hill, “United States History & Geography: Growth & Conflict,” California, P. 586; McGraw-Hill, “United States History to 1877,” Texas, P. 555

Both states say that breaches of “racial etiquette” led to lynchings after Reconstruction. But only California, whose edition was written more recently, makes clear that the perpetrators of lynchings also hoped to discourage black political and economic power.

HMH, “American History: Reconstruction to the Present,” California, P. 245; HMH, “The Americans: United States History Since 1877,” Texas, P. 288

Nevertheless, Kerry Green, a high school social studies teacher in Sunnyvale, Tex., a small town east of Dallas, said she discussed redlining with her 11th graders, adding it as a counterpoint to lessons about postwar prosperity — the optimistic story of consumerism, television and the Baby Boom that is emphasized by her state’s standards.

Ms. Green said she preferred to assign primary sources that “encourage students to explore history on their own.” But she said she would welcome textbooks that contain more historical documents and a greater diversity of voices and themes from the past.

“The textbook companies are not gearing their textbooks toward teachers; they’re gearing their textbooks toward states,” she said.

On gender and sexuality, California textbooks include history that is not in Texas editions.

McGraw-Hill, “United States History & Geography: Growth & Conflict,” California, P. 624

California states that the federal government failed to recognize nonbinary gender identities and female leaders in its early relations with Native Americans.

McGraw-Hill, “United States History Since 1877,” Texas, P. 111

Texas does not mention gender roles or gender identity in its discussion of efforts to “Americanize” Native Americans.

In Texas textbooks, mentions of L.G.B.T.Q. issues tend to be restricted to coverage of events in recent decades, such as the Stonewall uprising, the AIDS crisis and debates over marriage rights.

But for recent California editions, publishers wrote thousands of words of new text in response to the FAIR Education Act, a law signed by Governor Brown in 2011. It requires schools to teach the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and disabled Americans.

Peppered throughout California books are passages on topics like same-sex families under slavery and early sex reassignment surgery in the 1950s — text that does not appear in Texas versions.

CALIFORNIA
TEXAS
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California states that enslaved women faced sexual violence from owners and overseers.

McGraw-Hill, “United States History & Geography: Growth & Conflict,” California, P. 449; McGraw-Hill, “United States History to 1877,” Texas, P. 443

California mentions the “lavender scare” that targeted thousands of gay men and lesbians.

Pearson, “United States History: The Twentieth Century,” California, P. 486; Pearson, “United States History: 1877 to Present,” Texas, P. 456.

California states that Alfred Kinsey’s research and early sex reassignment surgeries challenged “the postwar ideal” on gender.

Pearson, “United States History: The Twentieth Century,” California, P. 498; Pearson, “United States History: 1877 to Present,” Texas, P. 470.

Both states focus on women’s fight against discrimination in the workplace. Only California says birth control played a role, by “allowing women to exert greater control over their sexuality and family planning.”

McGraw-Hill, “United States History & Geography: Continuity and Change,” California, P. 627; McGraw-Hill, “United States History Since 1877,” Texas, P. 525.

Stephanie Kugler, an eighth-grade history teacher in West Sacramento, Calif., said she had expanded an idea mentioned briefly in her classroom’s textbook, about women who dressed as men to fight in the Civil War and continued to live as men, into an entire lesson on troops who today would be considered transgender. The students read accounts of those soldiers’ lives alongside more traditional sources, such as letters written by a black Union soldier and a Confederate soldier.

Her goal, Ms. Kugler said, was to “make it really authentic” to talk about diversity in the context of each historical period.

While both states devote many pages to the women’s movement, Texas books, in general, avoid discussions of sex or sexuality.

Immigration and nativism are major themes in American history textbooks.

McGraw-Hill, “United States History & Geography: Continuity and Change,” California, P. 736

California includes an excerpt from a novel about a Dominican-American family.

McGraw-Hill, “United States History Since 1877,” Texas, P. 609

In the same place, Texas highlights the voice of a Border Patrol agent.

Michael Teague, a Border Patrol agent, is featured in the Texas edition of McGraw-Hill’s 11th grade textbook. He discusses his concerns about drug trafficking and says, “if you open the border wide up, you’re going to invite political and social upheaval.”

Mr. Teague’s story is featured at the end of a chapter on recent immigration, alongside accounts from a Vietnamese immigrant and a second-generation Mexican-American.

That section in the California edition of the same book is devoted to a long excerpt from the novel “How the García Girls Lost Their Accents,” by Julia Alvarez. It deals with intergenerational tensions in a Dominican-American family.

In a written statement, McGraw-Hill said the full-page Border Patrol narrative was not included in the California edition because it would not fit beside the literary excerpt. And at the time the Texas edition was produced, six years ago, state standards called for students to analyze both “legal and illegal immigration to the United States.”

In contrast, California textbooks are more likely to note when a historical figure was an immigrant. And they include more detail on the role immigrants such as Japanese and Filipino farmworkers played in labor movements.

California is one of many states to ask teachers and textbooks in recent years to cover the contributions of specific immigrant groups, including Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders, European-Americans and Mexican-Americans.

CALIFORNIA
TEXAS
TAKEAWAY

Only California states that Levi Strauss was a German Jewish immigrant.

McGraw-Hill, “United States History & Geography: Growth & Conflict,” California, P. 416; McGraw-Hill, “United States History Since 1877,” Texas, P. 417

California tells the story of Wong Kim Ark, whose 1898 Supreme Court case established birthright citizenship for the children of immigrants; Texas’s edition, which is older, does not mention this case, but does cover the Chinese Exclusion Act.

HMH, “American History: Reconstruction to the Present,” California, P. 247; HMH, “The Americans: United States History Since 1877,” Texas, P. 289

These additions are part of the reason California books are almost always longer than their Texas counterparts.

California’s Board of Education adopted an expansive 842-page social studies framework in 2016. Two years later, Texas’ school board streamlined its social studies standards, which are now laid out in 78 tightly compressed pages.

Critics of California’s approach say that making state standards and textbooks longer and more inclusive can be overwhelming to teachers trying to move quickly through hundreds of years of material.

Both states emphasize the role of big businessfrom the Gilded Age to the present.

HMH, “American History: Reconstruction to the Present,” California, P. 160

California is critical of wealth inequality and the impact of companies like Standard Oil on the environment.

HMH, “The Americans: United States History Since 1877,” Texas, P. 235

Texas is more likely to celebrate free enterprise and entrepreneurs like Andrew Carnegie.

Texas policymakers feel strongly about giving students a positive view of the American economy; since 1995, state law has required that high school economics courses offer an “emphasis on the free enterprise system and its benefits.” That emphasis seems to have made its way into the history curriculum as well.

California’s curriculum materials, by contrast, sometimes read like a brief from a Bernie Sanders rally. “The yawning gap between the haves and have-nots and what is to be done about it is one of the great questions of this time,” says the state’s 2016 social studies framework.

As a result, California textbooks are more likely to celebrate unionism, critique the concentration of wealth and focus on how industry pollutes the environment.

CALIFORNIA
TEXAS
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California refers to “the income gap” and explains that “changes in tax structures and safety-net programs” and “higher costs for education, child care, and housing” played a role. Both state editions discuss economic inequality in reference to the Occupy Wall Street movement and the decline of labor unions.

Pearson, “United States History: The Twentieth Century,” California, P. 728; Pearson, “United States History: 1877 to Present,” Texas, P. 687.

The older Texas edition highlights additional Republican critiques of President Barack Obama’s environmental policies, while the California book discusses the threat of rising sea levels.

Pearson, “United States History: The Twentieth Century,” California, P. 749; Pearson, “United States History: 1877 to Present,” Texas, P. 709.

Both the California and Texas 11th-grade textbooks from Pearson state, “The main argument against environmental legislation is that it hurts the economy and the nation’s industries.”

The Texas edition goes further to highlight criticism of federal efforts to subsidize the green energy industry: “Republicans accuse the government of wasting taxpayers’ money, for example by supporting the failed solar manufacturer Solyndra.” The Solyndra controversy was a fixation for conservatives in 2011, when the company went bankrupt after accepting half a billion dollars in federally guaranteed loans.

The Texas book also states that American action on global warming may not make a difference if China, India, Russia and Brazil do not also act.

The California edition does not mention Solyndra or the other nations. However, it does include a section on the threat to American states and cities from rising sea levels, noting that the impact on tourism in Florida could hurt that state’s economy, and that transportation networks and buildings could be threatened.

Pearson said in a written statement that the differences between the books could be attributed mostly to the fact that the California book was published several years later, and that concerns over coastal flooding have become “more heightened in recent years.”

A Field Guide to Polling: Election 2020 Edition

Useful advice in general, not just in terms of US political polling:

How can you tell a ‘good’ poll from a ‘bad’ one?

The longevity of phone polls has allowed scholars time to study them and establish basic standards and best practices. For this reason, it’s a fairly straightforward task to sort more rigorous phone polls from the rest. In general, rigorous surveys are those that are paid for and fielded by a neutral source; have selected a probability-based, random sample of the public (or the population of interest, such as registered voters); dial cellphones in addition to landlines; make multiple attempts to reach people; use live interviewers; and make public both the questionnaire and a detailed methodology.

On the other hand, creating a quality checklist for online opt-in polls remains a challenge and a work in progress.7 Some considerations are the same as for phone polls, as they too should be funded and conducted by a neutral source and transparent with their questionnaires and methodologies. Beyond these basics, evaluating the quality of an opt-in election poll should consider the following questions: Does the sample include all kinds of Americans? Does it include them in roughly the right proportion compared to their share of the population? If not, how are researchers working on the back end to address these issues?8

The Center is now several years into a sustained effort to evaluate these surveys, and several key findings have emerged. Online opt-in polls are not monolithic – some vendors produce more accurate data than others. What separates the better vendors is that they adjust their surveys to be representative on a large set of variables that includes both demographics (e.g., race, age, sex and, per the lessons of 2016, education) and political variables (e.g. party affiliation, voter registration status). Less accurate vendors tend to either not weight their data at all or adjust for just a few demographics. When evaluating these polls, look for evidence that the pollster has thought carefully about these kinds of problems and taken steps to correct them.

When it comes to opt-in online polls, enormous sample sizes aren’t necessarily a sign of quality.

Perhaps surprisingly, Center research found that having a sample that looked demographically representative of the country (through use of quotas or weighting) did not predict accuracy. In other words, just getting the survey to look representative with respect to age, sex, etc. does not mean that the survey estimates for other outcomes are accurate. At this stage in their development, opt-in polls require a very thoughtful, hands-on effort for those fielding the survey, requiring them to consider what they are trying to measure and how the characteristics of the sample may interact with those concepts. As a result, consumers of these polls should also be particularly attentive to these issues.

One last “false flag” to ignore: When it comes to opt-in online polls, enormous sample sizes aren’t necessarily a sign of quality. Given that opt-in surveys are so cheap to field, it’s not hard to drive up a sample size to provide the illusion of precision. But Center research suggests that an 8,000 person opt-in survey is not necessarily more accurate than a 2,000 person survey.

The bottom line for now is that, at least in our own explorations, “even the most effective adjustment procedures were unable to remove most of the bias”9 from opt-in polls. That said, the level of precision these opt-in panels can provide may be adequate for some research purposes.

Source: pewrsr.ch/34cknjD

How McKinsey Makes Its Own Rules

Seems like our Ambassador to China got out at the right time…

It’s not easy being McKinsey & Company these days.

For most of its 90-odd-year existence, the prestigious management consultancy prided itself on remaining above the fray. McKinsey consultants plied the executive suites of Fortune 500 companies, counseling chief executives with discretion and quietly building a business that, with $10 billion in annual revenues, is now bigger than many of the entities it serves. The substance of the company’s work, and even the identities of its clients, lie concealed under an institutional code of silence. That reticence, enforced by a nondisclosure agreement, bedeviled Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign until last Monday, when McKinsey granted him a rare dispensation to reveal the names of his former clients.

On the occasions when McKinsey’s work has been scrutinized of late, it hasn’t reflected well on the firm. Reporting by The New York Times, ProPublica and others over the past 18 months has raised serious questions about how it does business at home and abroad: corruption allegations against companies McKinsey partnered with in South Africa and Mongolia; a federal criminal investigation into the firm’s bankruptcy practice in the United States; attempts to deny that it helped put into effect controversial Trump administration immigration policies; and evidence that McKinsey cherry-picked nonviolent inmates for a pilot project and made it seem that an attempt to curb violence at New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex was working (it wasn’t). McKinsey has denied wrongdoing in each of these instances.

These and other examples of McKinsey’s recent conduct reveal a common dynamic. An examination of these episodes, including thousands of pages of documents and interviews with dozens of current and former McKinsey consultants and clients from multiple projects, suggests McKinsey behaves as if it believes the rules should bend to its way of doing things, not the other way around.

McKinsey’s self-regard has long been uncommonly high. In the firm’s 2010 internal history, a copy of which ProPublica obtained, partners compare the firm to the Marine Corps, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Jesuits: “analytically rigorous, deeply principled seekers of knowledge and truth,” the history’s authors write. One McKinsey partner went a step further, declaring without a hint of irony that the firm’s trait of shared values is more than “even the Catholic Church can promise.”

This attitude works for the firm in corporate consulting, an unregulated field where McKinsey’s reputation leaves it largely free to do things its own way and where its insistence on not being publicly credited has also shielded it from blame for its failures. But as McKinsey has expanded its consulting empire in recent years, it has taken on a growing book of work for government entities, as well as for corporate clients in areas subject to government oversight, such as advising bankrupt companies on restructuring.

In that field, consulting firms confront a web of contracting, disclosure and ethics rules that are designed to dictate and limit their behavior. These rules exist to prevent governments from wasting taxpayer money on underqualified or overpriced contractors and to protect government integrity and avoid conflicts of interests. In recent years, as McKinsey has burrowed deeper into this world, interviews and records show, it has developed a habit of disregarding inconvenient rules and norms to secure, retain and profit from government work.

Consider McKinsey’s imbroglios in South Africa and Mongolia. The firm did not follow the due diligence protocols commonly deployed to avoid running afoul of anti-corruption laws. The result: Its consultants found themselves working alongside dubious local companies that got them entangled in corruption investigations. Only after McKinsey became embroiled in the South Africa corruption scandal did the firm decide it needed to put more stringent safeguards in place.

In the United States, a damning but largely overlooked report issued in July by the Office of Inspector General for the General Services Administration, the hub for federal contracting, depicted McKinsey as ignoring rules and refusing to take no for an answer. The report examined McKinsey’s attempts to renew a major long-running contract in 2016. The firm was asked to provide additional pricing information to satisfy federal contracting rules. Rather than comply, McKinsey went over the contracting officer’s head, lodging complaints with top G.S.A. officials, who refused to exempt the firm from the rules.

Eventually, the firm found a friendly G.S.A. manager who was willing to not only award the contract, but also manipulated the G.S.A.’s pricing tools to increase the value of the contract by tens of millions of dollars. The report concluded the manager “violated requirements governing ethical conduct.”

The pattern repeated itself when McKinsey failed in multiple attempts to win a separate contract around the same time. Stymied, according to the report, McKinsey browbeat the contracting officer, threatening to resubmit the proposal until it got its way. The G.S.A. manager again intervened for reasons left unexplained by the report and McKinsey got its contract.

The report’s assessment of McKinsey’s behavior was withering, and it revealed that the firm subsequently used the same friendly manager to help secure contracts at three other federal agencies in 2017 and 2018. “Multiple contracting officers,” the inspector general wrote, told investigators that McKinsey’s requests were “inappropriate” and “a conflict of interest.”

The report recommended that the G.S.A. cancel the contracts, which as of earlier this year had earned McKinsey nearly $1 billion over a 13-year span. In a response to the report, the G.S.A. stated that it would ask McKinsey to renegotiate the contracts to lower the price. “If McKinsey declines” or “renegotiations do not yield a result in the government’s best interest,” the agency wrote, it would cancel them. Neither has happened to date, according to federal contracting records. A McKinsey spokesman said: “We have reviewed the report and the relevant facts, and have found no evidence of any improper conduct by our firm. We are in negotiations with G.S.A. and look forward to completing them soon.” A G.S.A. spokesperson said it is negotiating for “better pricing” and will not award McKinsey any further work under the contracts until those negotiations are concluded.

McKinsey has also taken steps to evade public accountability. As ProPublica reported, a senior partner leading McKinsey’s work at Rikers asked top corrections officials and members of the consulting team to restrict their communications to Wickr, an encrypted messaging app that deletes messages automatically after a few hours or days. That insulated some of McKinsey’s work from government oversight and public records requests. (“Our policies require colleagues to adhere to all relevant laws and regulations,” a McKinsey spokesman said. He neither confirmed nor denied the use of Wickr.)

Speaking more broadly, the McKinsey spokesman said: “We hear the calls for change. We are working hard to address the issues that have been raised.”

McKinsey has so far escaped serious repercussions for its reluctance to follow inconvenient rules. That could change next year.

Consultancies such as McKinsey, which advise companies restructuring under bankruptcy protection, are required to disclose potential conflicts of interest. For the past few years, McKinsey has been locked in a complicated set of court disputes with Jay Alix, the founder of a competing advisory firm, and with the Justice Department’s bankruptcy watchdog over whether McKinsey failed to follow bankruptcy disclosure rules, a subject The Times has covered in depth.

McKinsey has, since then, disclosed a number of new potential conflicts in old bankruptcy cases and paid $32.5 million to creditors and the United States trustee to settle claims over insufficient disclosures. The trustee has said that “McKinsey failed to satisfy its obligations under bankruptcy law and demonstrated a lack of candor.” The firm denies wrongdoing and says it settled “in order to move forward and focus on serving its clients.”

Subsequently, McKinsey has moved, in effect, to rewrite the rules. It drafted a protocol ostensibly meant to clarify what advisers like itself need to disclose. Critics pointed out that McKinsey’s protocol allows such firms to avoid disclosing relationships they deem indirect or “de minimis.”

There remains more to come. Apart from the criminal investigation, a judge in Houston has scheduled a trial in February to decide the merits of Mr. Alix’s allegations. The judge, David R. Jones, has described the trial in apocalyptic tones. It will be, Judge Jones has said, “the ultimate career ender for somebody.” For McKinsey, a trial would mean being called on to defend its work in public — with real accountability and real consequences for its actions. The firm might even benefit in the long run from the sunlight.

Source: How McKinsey Makes Its Own Rules

Shameful: @TrueNorthCentre using the two Michaels to raise funds

Speaks for itself – petition and involvement more to raise funds than substance – see highlighted text:

Two Canadians arrested by Chinese authorities on trumped-up charges have been in prison for exactly one year on December 10th.
Enough is enough.
We’re tired of the Chinese communist regime bullying Canada.
To anyone paying attention to China, both its grotesque human rights record and its increasingly belligerent foreign affairs, it’s clear that China is no friend to Canada.
It’s time the Trudeau government stand up to China and demand the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.
One can only imagine what conditions they’re being detained in.
We created a petition to help the two Canadians.
If 10,000 Canadians sign this petition, we’re going to table it in the House of Commons.
Can you sign this petition and share it with your friends and family?
We want as many Canadians as possible to sign this petition. We know the majority of Canadians understand the threat communist China poses to Canada.
If you’re able to, chip in a few dollars to help us promote this petition on social media.
Thank you for standing up for Canada,
True North

The parties went negative, and the media enabled them

Good reflections on election coverage:

It is hard for outsiders to understand how gruelling, exhilarating, exciting, frustrating and physically demanding it can be for journalists covering an election. In the modern multi-media, multi-tasking universe in which journalists live, reporters on campaign planes may be tweeting, doing live interviews and writing several stories in the course of 18-hour days, often eating crappy food at irregular hours without proper exercise and with inadequate sleep. All while trying to be fair and accurate. On election night, columnists like the Toronto Star’s Chantal Hébert and the National Post’s Andrew Coyne were writing their pieces for the next day’s papers while simultaneously appearing on live TV shows.

Ordinary reporters broke stories in this campaign and exhaustively documented the statements of the leaders. Analysts and commentators took apart the platforms. And despite what you may have thought or heard, they collectively produced reams of copy on policy issues. Every time I saw someone complaining that no one was writing about some specific issue, I went online and found deeply reported stories. There were policy pieces on housing affordability and the dependency ratio, and examinations of party platforms on child care and the environment, just to offer a few examples.

But for all the individual excellence and all the expenditure of energy and intellectual capital from journalists, this was a deeply dissatisfying election for many Canadians, and the media played a part in that.

First, let’s be clear. Despite talk that the mainstream media have been displaced by social media, they continue to play a dominant role in the way most Canadians experience a campaign. More than half of Canadians relied on the evening national TV news to form their views on the election, according to a survey by Abacus Data. That was followed by talk radio. Both of these old-fashioned news sources were ahead of social media, as was the influence of “family and friends.”

Not surprisingly, the picture was quite different when it came to the youngest cohort, those 18-29 years of age. For them, the most important source of election information was not social media, though, but family and friends. True, social media were more important to this group than mainstream media; nonetheless, TV news, talk radio and newspapers were all important sources of election information for more than 40 percent of them. What this suggests is that the grip of the mainstream media might continue to diminish over time, but the day of its irrelevance has surely not yet come.

So, the coverage mattered. And the coverage, certainly as it was experienced by many voters, was predominantly negative. We have some interesting data on this from Greg Lyle at Innovative Research Group. He asked respondents mid-campaign whether they had read, seen or heard anything in recent days about each leader. Among those who had heard anything about Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, they said it led them to think less favourably of him by a margin of two-to-one. Almost precisely the same was true of Conservative leader Andrew Scheer.

This is very much in keeping with the unprecedently negative tone of the entire 2019 campaign in which both major parties trended down in the polls and which produced a government with the lowest-ever share of the popular vote.

Like any campaign, so much happened in such a short time that it can be easy to forget the way it began. In the first few days after the writ was dropped, it felt like a formless void, a space without narrative. And this was a vacuum that was gleefully filled by the Liberal war room. The Liberals had obviously accumulated a little video storehouse of horrors: Conservative candidates saying controversial or outright offensive things on abortion, Quebec, homosexuality and race. In that first week, they dropped bits of what they had found onto social media with deliberate menace just hours before Scheer made campaign appearances with particular candidates.

They did this before Scheer appeared with Rachel Willson in York-Centre (her call for anti-abortion legislation). Boom! When he was about to appear with Arpan Khanna in Brampton North (his homophobic Facebook posts). Boom! When he was on his way to see Justina McCaffrey in Kanata-Carleton (her friendship with far-right commentator Faith Goldy). Boom! (Each of these candidates ultimately lost, by the way.)

So, it was the Liberals, not the media, who set the tone of the campaign in its first week. Gloomy Ways! But they did so by performing a sort of hack on the media, exploiting their weakness for novelty and tension. Because it was in video form, it took little or no effort to verify on the fly.

What reporter rushing to a constituency event where the less-than-electric Scheer was slated to address some small-bore policy idea recycled from Harper 2015 could resist the lure of the video the Liberals had just dropped on Twitter? Particularly when the Tory candidate obliged the Liberal war room by running away from the camera, as Justina McCaffrey did.

So, the media did not set the tone, but their weakness for a particular kind of story enabled and amplified it. This kept everyone occupied until that blackface photo appeared on Time’s website, giving Justin Trudeau his time in the barrel (and forcing the Liberals to cage in the residents of their war room for a while). Two weeks later, though, the media dug up information about Andrew Scheer’s resumé and then his citizenship, swinging the narrative back to him.

Of course, the media are not helpless in the face of the narratives that campaigns present any more than the parties themselves are. Indeed, every day is a struggle among the parties themselves and between them and the media to decide what the election should be about. On the very first day of the campaign, the Globe and Mail dropped a story on the RCMP looking into the SNC-Lavalin affair that the paper may have hoped would set the frame for the entire campaign. It did set the frame, but for only a day. Later it seemed plain that many people in the media expected the blackface controversy to dominate the rest of the campaign, until it seemed it had not made much of a dent in the Liberals’ polls, at which point they moved on.

Neither of those narratives would have elevated the tone of the election campaign, it has to be said. You could argue in contrast that the Toronto Star strove admirably to frame the election around climate change, which if you believe is real, as I do, is surely as worthy a subject to debate at election time as free trade in 1988 or cutting the GST in 2006. The Star published a series of vividly reported stories that helped remind those who read them of the stakes if we do not act. But it was Swedish activist Greta Thunberg’s journey to North America that raised the profile of the issue in the media more generally, at least for a week, along with an assist from the Liberals on the hustings anxious to move on from blackface. But then climate change, too, faded into the cacophony.

In the last week, it was the most familiar of media narratives that dominated: who is ahead in the polls; can anyone get a majority; if not, who will play with whom in the new Parliament? This emptied the election of most of its policy content and opened up a mostly negative conversation among the parties about which voters should fear the most. Should we be more afraid of Liberal/NDP profligacy or of Conservative budget cuts?

It would be wrong to say that the media alone were responsible for the negativity of this campaign. What we witnessed was rather a cycle, much of it beginning with the parties themselves, turbo-charged by the media, spun through social media, then picked up again and further amplified by the politicians. This cycle could have been broken had the parties presented big ideas or divided more clearly on issues of principle or policy, but for the most part they chose not to. And there were signs of resistance in the media — reporters and columnists who worked mightily to bring us back to what mattered, or should matter: climate change, the economy, taxes and deficit, systemic racism, the scandal of the condition of Indigenous people, foreign policy even. But in the end, all their efforts to save us from this dismal election were in vain.

Source: The parties went negative, and the media enabled them

Who is a journalist?

Good discussion of the issues by Paul Adams:

It is hard enough deciding who is a journalist without delegating the decision to a judge in the midst of an election campaign — or for that matter the Parliamentary Press Gallery. Last week, a judge ordered that three men from two far-right outfits, Rebel Media and the True North Centre for Public Policy, be accredited as journalists to attend the party leaders’ debate. The judge has not yet given his reasons for the decision, but the Leaders Debates Commission reportedly argued in court that they should not be included because of their history of advocacy, which it argued precludes them from being accredited as journalists.

When you think of it historically, the idea that advocacy is inconsistent with journalism is a strange one. Historically, “advocacy” was no bar to being a journalist; in many cases it was its hallmark. Otherwise, what are we to make of Joseph Howe’s Novascotian, which excoriated the magistrates and police? Or George Brown’s Globe, which attacked slavery and Catholicism with equal vehemence? The motto that Brown chose and still adorns its successor, the Globe and Mail, presents a masterclass in journalistic passive aggressiveness: “The subject who is truly loyal to the Chief Magistrate will neither advise nor submit to arbitrary measures.”

In contrast, the model of journalism that many people, including many journalists, carry around in their heads nowadays, where concepts such as balance, fairness and objectivity reign, is primarily a 20th-century construct. It arose from a combination of circumstances, including the commercial pressures on newspapers in medium and small markets to appeal to readers across the political spectrum, the emergence of wire services catering to outlets of different political stripes, and the invention of broadcasting, which led to a combination of publicly owned and highly regulated privately owned broadcasters. It was also connected with the attempt to turn reporters, essentially a trade in the 19th century plied mainly by members of the educated working class, into a “profession,” supported by journalism schools, which were also a 20th– century phenomenon.

However, the earliest champions of press freedom, such as John Peter Zenger, who fought off a libel charge from the royal governor in the colony of New York in the 1730s (after languishing in jail for a time) were defending advocacy on the basis that it was truthful, even if defamatory. When James Madison composed his draft of the US Constitution’s First Amendment, he conceived of freedom of the press as part of a wider set of liberties such as freedom of speech and religion, which were obviously not bounded by standards of fairness or objectivity.

Photo: Parliamentary Press Gallery, Ottawa, 1914. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 9066.

When you think of it, anyone can speak and anyone can have a religious viewpoint. The real difference between these rights and press freedom is that until very recently relatively few people had ready access to a printing press. In other words, the right to freedom of the press was always circumscribed by sheer logistics. Until roughly the dawn of the 21st century, one of the many differences between you and Conrad Black was that he had access to a printing press and you didn’t. (When Black re-entered the Canadian market in a big way about that time, by the way, he explicitly sought for the National Post to be a “crusading newspaper.”)

This logistical difference between the press and other forms of expressive liberty led to a media tradition that was in fact much narrower than the precepts espoused by Madison and Thomas Jefferson at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, which were then finally transposed into our own Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982. The modern media have always imposed limits on the spectrum of views they would tolerate.

If you look at the formal statements of major news organizations such as the CBC or the Globe and Mail, they are replete with boasts that they carry a diversity of views; but they say relatively little about the limits to that diversity. Yet you are unlikely to see a supporter of ISIS get a weekly column or even an occasional op-ed. And Rosemary Barton is not about to add a dash of spice to her weekly panel by, say, adding an alt-right figure such as Faith Goldy. This is true even though we know there are Canadians who hold such views.

The best explanation I have seen of the structure of permitted expression in the media was articulated by an American scholar, Daniel Hallin, at the time of the Vietnam war. Hallin described what he called “three spheres” in journalistic discourse. The first is the sphere of consensus. This includes topics on which the media take the view that consensus is so broad that no opposing view needs to be offered. So, journalists take for granted that slavery is bad, for example, and that democracy is preferable to dictatorship. They feel no need to offer “balance” or another point of view when touching on such topics.

The second is the sphere of legitimate controversy. In the current election campaign, this sphere would include the debate about the size of the deficit and the speed with which it should be addressed, the question of whether to adopt a national pharmacare plan, and whether to build a pipeline. In this sphere, reporters feel a responsibility to maintain neutrality, to “balance” their reports and to maintain a personal disinterest in the outcome of the debates they are reporting on. In this zone, columnists and editorial boards are free to weigh in with their views.

The third is the sphere of deviance. These are ideas such as those I described above, espoused by ISIS or neo-Nazis, which are considered outside the sphere of legitimate discourse, and might also include ideas that are regarded as laughable, ridiculous or simply unfounded. They might be covered as news events but the substance of their arguments is dismissed. Nowadays, this sphere can include people such as climate deniers and anti-vaxxers.

These last two examples point to an important feature of the spheres: that they are constantly in flux as a result of social and journalistic controversy. A decade ago, it was not unusual for a news story on climate change to go out of its way to quote what we now call a climate denier as a way to balance a story. Today it is unusual, and when it happens it is referred to as “false balance” in journalistic circles. Something similar is happening with the debate over vaccinations, with the anti-vaxxers well on their way to the sphere of deviance.

The reason that many people were so angry with the Globe and Mail when it afforded Ezra Levant the platform of its op-ed page early in the election campaign was that it appeared to move someone who was well on his way into the sphere of deviance back into the sphere of legitimate controversy.

Although from a libertarian perspective it is easy to criticize the imposition of the strictures of the three spheres as the arrogant pronouncements of a media (and perhaps corporate) elite, it is not hard to see how they play a cohesive role in our society. Most obviously, it is conducive to a peaceful, orderly, happy society that we don’t give platforms to those who question the full humanity of people of colour or of women or who advocate violence in the pursuit of their political aims.

That having been said, the ability of the mainstream media to police and arbitrate those spheres is now under radical attack in two ways. First of all, the internet has destroyed many of the barriers to entry into the media. You no longer need a printing press or a broadcasting tower to publish. You just need a WordPress account and a server somewhere. Any idiot can get on Twitter. (As you may have noticed, many do.)

Secondly — and this could be a related phenomenon — the sphere of consensus is breaking down in many Western countries. It might be too much to say that there is no longer a broad consensus, for example, that democracy is preferable to authoritarianism, but we have seen the emergence of Strongman-envy in the slaverings of Donald Trump and some of his supporters. A survey in the United States last year found that while 84 percent of seniors agreed that democracy is “always preferable” to other systems of government, that was true of only 55 percent of those aged 18-29. The erosion of a consensus about democracy appears to be happening in many Western countries and though there is disagreement about the degree to which this is happening in Canada, it would be foolish to assume we are immune.

Thus, at the same time as the media’s quasi-monopoly on the printing presses and their modern-day equivalents are eroding their ability to enforce ideas of consensus and deviance, the bulwarks of the old consensus are also under attack.

The issue of who is a journalist in this election campaign has mixed up two debates. The first is one about the guild privilege as exercised by the Parliamentary Press Gallery (and other similar organizations) to which the Debates Commission, like Parliament itself, had contracted out the responsibility to decide who could be accredited. This is where the would-be journalists from the Rebel and True North had their strongest case and on which, I am guessing, the judge decided the matter.

The Gallery, which is still dominated, though not as exclusively as it once was, by big traditional media, has spent the last two decades working through the thorny issues of who would get access to the hallowed halls of Parliament as waves of bloggers, start-up internet websites, quasi-lobbyists, hobbyists and, yes, advocacy groups clamoured for admittance to the club. This is an issue the Gallery has had to manage for logistical reasons if nothing else, and the politicians have been happy to let them do it rather than wading into the thorny issue of who is a journalist themselves.

But whatever you think of the Gallery’s attempt to negotiate these shoals, its guiding principle has not been a commitment to that popular contemporary image of journalism as free, open, balanced, objective news coverage. The “tell” could be that the current membership of the Gallery includes a correspondent from the TASS news agency, as it has done since the Soviet era, and also one from the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China.

The much more challenging debate than the one the Gallery, the debate commission and the judge are effectively squabbling over is whether there is still a degree of consensus in our society that makes it worthwhile trying to wall off a zone of legitimate controversy from those who would challenge fundamental values, for example, about democracy, race and gender; what the limits of that zone should be; and who should enforce them. And if we were to decide that such a zone is worth defending, would it even be possible in the age of the internet?

Source: Who is a journalist?

The consequences of ‘horse race’ reporting: What the research says

For those of us who are both fascinated and bored by horse race reporting, found this article and related analyses of interest:

When journalists covering elections focus primarily on who’s winning or losing — instead of on policy issues — voters, candidates and the news industry itself suffer, a growing body of research has found.

Media scholars have studied so-called “horse race” reporting for decades to better understand the impact of news stories that frame elections as a competitive game, relying heavily on public opinion polls and giving the most positive attention to frontrunners and underdogs who are gaining in popularity. It’s a common strategy for political coverage in the United States and other parts of the world.

Thomas E. Patterson, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Bradlee professor of government and the press, says election coverage often does not delve into policy issues — what candidates say they would do if elected. Policy issues accounted for 10% of news coverage of the 2016 general presidential election, according to an analysis Patterson did as part of a research series that looks at journalists’ work leading up to and during the election. The bulk of coverage that Patterson examined concentrated on who was winning and losing and why.

“The horserace has been the dominant theme of election news since the 1970s, when news organizations began to conduct their own election polls,” Patterson writes in a December 2016 working paper, “News Coverage of the 2016 General Election: How the Press Failed the Voters.”“Since then, polls have proliferated to the point where well over a hundred separate polls — more than a new poll each day — were reported in major news outlets during the 2016 general election.”

Decades of academic studies find that horse race reporting is linked to:

  • Distrust in politicians.
  • Distrust of news outlets.
  • An uninformed electorate.
  • Inaccurate reporting of opinion poll data.

Horse race coverage also:

  • Is detrimental to female political candidates, who tend to focus on policy issues to build credibility.
  • Gives an advantage to novel and unusual candidates.
  • Shortchanges third-party candidates, who often are overlooked or ignored because their chances of winning are slim compared to Republican and Democratic candidates.

Horse race reporting helped catapult billionaire businessman Donald Trump to a lead position during the nominating phase of the 2016 presidential campaign, finds another paper in Patterson’s research series, “News Coverage of the 2016 Presidential Primaries: Horse Race Reporting Has Consequences.”

“The media’s tendency to allocate coverage based on winning and losing affects voters’ decisions,” Patterson writes. “The press’s attention to early winners, and its tendency to afford them more positive coverage than their competitors, is not designed to boost their chances, but that’s a predictable effect.

The following academic studies, most of which were published in peer-reviewed journals, investigate the consequences of horse race reporting from multiple angles. For added context, we included several studies that take a critical look at how journalists use and interpret opinion polls in their election stories.

——–

The Consequences of Strategic News Coverage for Democracy: A Meta-Analysis
Zoizner, Alon. Communication Research, 2018.

In this study, researcher Alon Zoizner of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, analyzes 32 studies published or released from 1997 to 2016 that examine the effects of “strategic news” coverage. Zoizner describes strategic news coverage as the “coverage of politics [that] often focuses on politicians’ strategies and tactics as well as their campaign performance and position at the polls.”

Among the main takeaways: This type of reporting elevates the public’s cynicism toward politics and the issues featured as part of that coverage.

“In other words,” Zoizner writes, “this coverage leads to a specific public perception of politics that is dominated by a focus on political actors’ motivations for gaining power rather than their substantive concerns for the common good.”

He adds that young people, in particular, are susceptible to the effects of strategic news coverage because they have limited experience with the democratic process. They “may develop deep feelings of mistrust toward political elites, which will persist throughout their adult lives,” Zoizner writes.

His analysis also finds that this kind of reporting results in an uninformed electorate. The public receives less information about public policies and candidates’ positions on important issues.

“This finding erodes the media’s informative value because journalists cultivate a specific knowledge about politics that fosters political alienation rather than helping citizens make rational decisions based on substantive information,” the author writes. Framing politics as a game to be won “inhibits the development of an informed citizenship because the public is mostly familiar with the political rivalries instead of actually knowing what the substantive debate is about.”

Another key finding: Strategic news coverage hurts news outlets’ reputations. People exposed to it “are more critical of news stories and consider them to be less credible, interesting, and of low quality,” Zoizner explains. “Strategic coverage will continue to be a part of the news diet but in parallel will lead citizens to develop higher levels of cynicism and criticism not only toward politicians but also toward the media.”

News Coverage of the 2016 Presidential Primaries: Horse Race Reporting Has Consequences
Patterson, Thomas E. Harvard Kennedy School working paper, December 2016.

Horse race reporting gave Donald Trump an advantage during the 2016 presidential primary season, this working paper finds. Nearly 60% of the election news analyzed during this period characterized the election as a competitive game, with Trump receiving the most coverage of any candidate seeking the Republican nomination. In the final five weeks of the primary campaign, the press gave him more coverage than Democratic frontrunners Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

“The media’s obsession with Trump during the primaries meant that the Republican race was afforded far more coverage than the Democratic race, even though it lasted five weeks longer,” writes Patterson, who looked at election news coverage provided by eight major print and broadcast outlets over the first five months of 2016. “The Republican contest got 63 percent of the total coverage between January 1 and June 7, compared with the Democrats’ 37 percent — a margin of more than three to two.”

Patterson’s paper takes a detailed look at the proportion and tone of coverage for Republican and Democratic candidates during each stage of the primary campaign. He notes that the structure of the nominating process lends itself to horse race reporting. “Tasked with covering fifty contests crammed into the space of several months,” he writes, “journalists are unable to take their eyes or minds off the horse race or to resist the temptation to build their narratives around the candidates’ position in the race.”

Patterson explains how horse race journalism affects candidates’ images and can influence voter decisions. “The press’s attention to early winners, and its tendency to afford them more positive coverage than their competitors, is not designed to boost their chances, but that’s a predictable effect,” he writes. He points out that a candidate who’s performing well usually is portrayed positively while one who isn’t doing as well “has his or her weakest features put before the public.”

Patterson asserts that primary election coverage is “the inverse of what would work best for voters.” “Most voters don’t truly engage the campaign until the primary election stage,” he writes. “As a result, they enter the campaign nearly at the point of decision, unarmed with anything approaching a clear understanding of their choices. They are greeted by news coverage that’s long on the horse race and short on substance … It’s not until later in the process, when the race is nearly settled, that substance comes more fully into the mix.”

What Predicts the Game Frame? Media Ownership, Electoral Context, and Campaign News
Dunaway, Johanna; Lawrence, Regina G. Political Communication, 2015.

This study finds that corporate-owned and large-chain newspapers were more likely to publish stories that frame elections as a competitive game than newspapers with a single owner. It also finds that horse race coverage was most prevalent in close races and during the weeks leading up to an election.

Researchers Johanna Dunaway, an associate professor of communication at Texas A&M University, and Regina G. Lawrence, associate dean of the School of Journalism and Communication Portland, looked at print news stories about elections for governor and U.S. Senate in 2004, 2006 and 2008. They analyzed 10,784 articles published by 259 newspapers between Sept. 1 and Election Day of those years.

Their examination reveals that privately-owned, large-chain publications behave similarly to publications controlled by shareholders. “We expected public shareholder-controlled news organizations to be most likely to resort to game-framed news because of their tendency to emphasize the profit motive over other goals; in fact, privately owned large chains are slightly more likely to use the game frame in their campaign news coverage at mean levels of electoral competition,” Dunaway and Lawrence write.

They note that regardless of a news outlet’s ownership structure, journalists and audiences are drawn to the horse race in close races. “Given a close race, newspapers of many types will tend to converge on a game-framed election narrative and, by extension, stories focusing on who’s up/who’s down will crowd out stories about the policy issues they are presumably being elected to address,” the authors write. “And, as the days-’til-election variable shows, this pattern will intensify across the course of a close race.”

Gender Bias and Mainstream Media
Conroy, Meredith. Chapter within the book Masculinity, Media, and the American Presidency, 2015.

In this book chapter, Meredith Conroy, an associate professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, draws on earlier research that finds horse race coverage is more detrimental to women than men running for elected office. She explains that female candidates often emphasize their issue positions as a campaign strategy to bolster their credibility.

“If the election coverage neglects the issues, women may miss out on the opportunity to assuage fears about their perceived incompetency,” she writes. She adds that when the news “neglects substantive coverage, the focus turns to a focus on personality and appearance.”

“An overemphasis on personality and appearance is detrimental to women, as it further delegitimizes their place in the political realm, more so than for men, whose negative traits are still often masculine and thus still relevant to politics,” she writes.

Contagious Media Effects: How Media Use and Exposure to Game-Framed News Influence Media Trust
Hopmann, David Nicolas; Shehata, Adam; Strömbäck, Jesper. Mass Communication and Society, 2015.

How does framing politics as a strategic game influence the public’s trust in journalism? This study of Swedish news coverage suggests it lowers trust in all forms of print and broadcast news media — except tabloid newspapers.

The authors note that earlier research indicates people who don’t trust mainstream media often turn to tabloids for news. “By framing politics as a strategic game and thereby undermining trust not only in politics but also in the media, the media may thus simultaneously weaken the incentives for people to follow the news in mainstream media and strengthen the incentives for people to turn to alternative news sources,” write the authors, David Nicolas Hopmann, an associate professor at University of Southern Denmark, Adam Shehata, a senior lecturer at the University of Gothenburg, and Jesper Strömbäck, a professor at the University of Gothenburg.

The three researchers analyzed how four daily newspapers and three daily “newscasts” covered the 2010 Swedish national election campaign. They also looked at the results of surveys aimed at measuring people’s attitudes toward the Swedish news media in the months leading up to and immediately after the 2010 election. The sample comprised 4,760 respondents aged 18 to 74.

Another key takeaway of this study: The researchers discovered that when people read tabloid newspapers, their trust in them grows as does their distrust of the other media. “Taken together, these findings suggest that the mistrust caused by the framing of politics as a strategic game is contagious in two senses,” they write. “For all media except the tabloids, the mistrust toward politicians implied by the framing of politics as a strategic game is extended to the media-making use of this particular framing, whereas in the case of the tabloids, it is extended to other media.”

How journalists use opinion polls

The ‘Nate Silver Effect’ on Political Journalism: Gatecrashers, Gatekeepers, and Changing Newsroom Practices Around Coverage of Public Opinion Polls
Toff, Benjamin. Journalism, 2019.

This study, based on in-depth interviews with 41 U.S. journalists, media analysts and public opinion pollsters, documents changes in how news outlets cover public opinion. It reveals, among other things, “evidence of eroding internal newsroom standards about which polls to reference in coverage and how to adjudicate between surveys,” writes the author, Benjamin Toff, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Toff notes that journalists’ focus on polling aggregator websites paired with the growing availability of online survey data has resulted in an overconfidence in polls’ ability to predict election outcomes — what one reporter he interviewed called the “Nate Silver effect.”

Both journalists and polling professionals expressed concern about journalists’ lack of training and their reliance on poll firms’ reputations as evidence of poll quality rather than the poll’s sampling design and other methodological details. Toff, who completed the interviews between October 2014 and May 2015, points out that advocacy organizations can take advantage of the situation to get reporters to unknowingly disseminate their messages.

The study also finds that younger journalists and those who work for online news organizations are less likely to consider it their job to interpret polls for the public. One online journalist, for example, told Toff that readers should help determine the reliability of poll results and that “in a lot of ways Twitter is our ombudsman.”

Toff calls on academic researchers to help improve coverage of public opinion, in part by offering clearer guidance on best practices for news reporting. “The challenge of interpreting public opinion is a collective one,” he writes, “and scholarship which merely chastises journalists for their shortcomings does not offer a productive path forward.”

Transforming Stability into Change: How the Media Select and Report Opinion Polls
Larsen, Erik Gahner; Fazekas, Zoltán. The International Journal of Press/Politics, 2019.

In this study, researchers find that journalists covering Danish elections are more likely to cover polls that suggest shifts in voter support than polls that reflect stable voter support. The researchers also find that when journalists tell their audiences that voter support has risen or fallen, it’s often misleading — there usually has been no statistically significant change when taking the poll’s margin of error into account.

Erik Gahner Larsen, a lecturer in quantitative politics at the University of Kent, and Zoltán Fazekas, an associate professor of business and politics at the Copenhagen Business School, examined news coverage of all opinion polls that eight polling firms conducted between 2011 and 2015 to measure Danish voters’ intentions. The analysis focuses on 4,147 news articles published on the websites of nine newspapers and two national TV companies, which, together, featured the results of a combined 412 opinion polls.

“In a majority of the cases the [journalists’] reporting should be about stability,” Larsen and Fazekas write. “However, 58% of the articles mention change in their title. Furthermore, while 82% of the polls have no statistically significant changes, 86% of the articles does not mention any considerations related to uncertainty.”

The authors note their findings reflect “systematic patterns in how journalists turn these polls into an illusionary political horserace.”

News Reporting of Opinion Polls: Journalism and Statistical Noise
Bhatti, Yosef; Pedersen, Rasmus Tue. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 2016.

This paper, which also looks at news coverage of opinion polls in Denmark, finds that Danish journalists don’t do a great job reporting on opinion polls. Most journalists whose work was examined don’t seem to understand how a poll’s margin of error affects its results. Also, they often fail to explain to their audiences the statistical uncertainty of poll results, according to the authors, Yosef Bhatti of Roskilde University and Rasmus Tue Pedersen of the Danish Center for Social Science Research.

The two researchers analyzed the poll coverage provided by seven Danish newspapers before, during and after the 2011 parliamentary election campaign — a 260-day period from May 9, 2011 to Jan. 23, 2012. A total of 1,078 articles were examined.

Bhatti and Pedersen find that journalists often interpreted two poll results as different from each other when, considering the poll’s uncertainty, it actually was unclear whether one result was larger or smaller than the other. “A large share of the interpretations made by the journalists is based on differences in numbers that are so small that they are most likely just statistical noise,” they write.

They note that bad poll reporting might be the result of journalists’ poor statistical skills. But it “may also be driven by journalists’ and editors’ desires for interesting horse race stories,” the authors add. “Hence, the problem may not be a lack of methodological skills but may also be caused by a lack of a genuine adherence to the journalistic norms of reliability and fact-based news. If this is the case, unsubstantiated poll stories may be a more permanent and unavoidable feature of modern horse race coverage.”

Looking for more information on horse race reporting and opinion polls? Check out our tip sheet outlining 11 questions journalists should ask about opinion polls and our write-up of a study that finds that academic scholars are more likely to be included in horse race stories than issue coverage. Our collection of research on opinion polls digs into such things as polling errors and the relationship between media coverage and polling.

ICYMI: Change in the Saudi Birthplace of Islam Is Eyed Warily Worldwide

Having lived in Saudi Arabia 1986-88, hard to see the country attracting many tourists, although the desert is imposing and some of the modern architecture, incorporating elements of Islamic design, is impressive:

The world’s 1.8 billion Muslims look to one country above all others.

As the birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia is a symbol of purity for many who direct their prayers toward Mecca wherever they are in the world.

Source: Change in the Saudi Birthplace of Islam Is Eyed Warily Worldwide