The worlds of political science & journalism: More connected than you think

Advertising and Marketing. Psychology and Special Education. Fashion and Business. These are the combinations of study you most commonly encounter, especially here at Marist College. But a growing trend can be observed linking the concentrations of Political Science and Communication, with an emphasis on Journalism in particular, and it is not hard to see why – politics and journalism have long enjoyed a complimentary and interdependent relationship, and it is important to understand why a basic understanding of both can be beneficial to society.

Journalists have long been regarded as the “Fourth Estate” of government, as watchdogs over the legislative, executive and judicial branches, and their influence greatly affects politics in the United States. The public’s point of view is changed by the way the news is reported, and when people’s views are affected the polls are too. In turn, public officials are elected and laws are enacted that affect our everyday lives. Journalists, and the media in general, are at the beginning of a long chain, but they have a powerful effect on politics in the United States nonetheless. A basic understanding of both fields can be beneficial to all people, not just students.

Political science compliments journalism in many other ways as well. With a basic understanding of political science, journalists can provide structural context in the sense that they can shape the policy decisions of potential candidates and elected officials, or as I have mentioned, they can shape the way people vote. In addition, political science can help journalists identify historical trends, which in turn can help to shape modern analysis.

Journalists, the "Fourth Estate" of government

Journalists, the “Fourth Estate” of government

These two fields of study share a symbiotic and interdependent relationship that many people tend to overlook – there exist actual careers such as “political journalists” or people who work in “political communications” – and while this relationship has existed as long as the two fields have themselves, one hypothesis believes that with the arrival of so-called “new media” in recent years, the connection has grown even stronger. An article from the Columbia Journalism Review states, “the distant and often antagonistic relationship [between political science and journalism] has been changed dramatically by the Internet. When academics began to venture into the world of blogs and comment more frequently on current events, journalists and academics started to recognize the mutually beneficial ways in which reporters and political scientists could interact.”

Dr. Lee Miringoff is the director of the Marist Institute of Public Opinion (MIPO) which conducts the well-established and nationally-regarded Marist Poll. He believes that there is indeed an inevitable relationship between the two fields. “I think that there is a great interdependency between political science and journalism – you can’t get into politics without dealing with the whole world of communications,” said Miringoff. “They are very distinct subject matters in their own right, but there does exist a symbiotic and interdependent relationship and they often overlap.” In addition, Miringoff teaches a class called Public Opinion & Politics. One aspect of this class includes a heavy emphasis on the development of “new media” and its effects in the political world, adding clout to the argument previously outlined by the article in the Columbia Journalism Review which believes modern media has greatly expanded the relationship between the two fields.

Dr. Miringoff often welcomes guest speakers in this class, and one of them was Steve Thomma, current President of the White House Correspondents’ Association. Thomma is one example of a professional in the field of journalism that has greatly benefitted from an understanding of political science. Thomma graduated from Dominican University double-majoring in – you guessed it – political science and journalism. While not everyone rises in the ranks as successfully as Thomma has, this is an example of how the beneficial reliance the two fields share with one another can be applied in the real world.

From the journalism perspective, Dr. Kevin Lerner believes that knowledge of political science, or any topic area for that matter, is an invaluable asset to a journalist.

“One movement within journalism education is to partner up with topic areas, and political science is one of those topic areas that seems to make immediate and intuitive sense,” said Lerner.

“In a democratic society where the people choose their own government from among themselves, the people need journalism as part of that government. Journalism facilitates the conversation that allows people to actually govern themselves. Journalism has a huge role in politics, and the fields are symbiotic in that way.”

In relation to Lerner’s comments, there is a book by Thomas E. Patterson titled “Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism.” Knowledge-based journalism is the idea that journalists should be well-versed in the subjects they cover, or else they will “continue to misinterpret them and be vulnerable to manipulation by their sources.”

One excerpt from this book reads, “Reporters rely on a limited number of frames. Stories on policy issues tend to be told either through a problem frame or through a strategic frame… Journalists’ tacit assumption – that politics is one or the other – drives their story lines.” Knowledge-based journalism, which for the purpose of this piece would be a general knowledge of political science, is incredibly beneficial to journalists, and as both Drs. Miringoff and Lerner noted, the relationship is both symbiotic and often overlapping. One must be knowledgeable in both fields in order to fully explain and understand one or the other.

An example of the growing emphasis on knowledge or subject-based journalism can be seen at the Columbia University School of Journalism. Here, students are offered a unique opportunity in which on top of a traditional Master of Science degree in journalism, they can combine or add a Master of Arts degree in journalism as well. This degree incorporates the idea of being well-versed in “subject matter knowledge,” as outlined by Dr. Lerner and Thomas Patterson, and students are required to take classes in other departments of study, such as business or science, in addition the concentration of journalism.

As for a student’s perspective on things, Bob Tognetti is a senior here at Marist who has taken on a Political Science major with a minor in Journalism. He stressed that this has opened up a variety of opportunities he never thought possible, and that it has greatly expanded his understanding of the world.

“I chose this combination because, as I would come to realize, they work together perfectly. It has helped me to understand political events in a way other journalists or political scientists may not be able to without an understanding of one another,” he said. “I recently attended a protest at the Palestinian mission to the United Nations. As a political science major, having taken classes on terrorism and the Arab-Israeli conflict, there is no doubt in my mind that I would not have been able to comprehend the situation without a basic knowledge of these events beforehand.”

Bob chose to venture into the study of journalism after taking a class with Dr. Miringoff. “I knew Dr. Miringoff through class, and he inspired me to minor in journalism,” he explained. “He helped me get my internship at CBS radio through his connections in the journalism world.”

As for advice Bob would give to others contemplating honing their inner “political journalist,” “Try to plan it out early. I declared my minor in journalism at the end of my sophomore year; I wish I could have planned it out earlier.”

It is clear that while often overlooked, the relationship between political science and journalism is one that is incredibly important in today’s day and age, both to students and to the general public as well. With the astonishing political polarization that exists in the country, a better understanding of both politics and the news could go a long way in patching up our fractured nation.

As for students such as Bob or myself, by combining these fields of study, many avenues can open up in the real world. “I think it gives you much more self-determination,” said Dr. Lerner. “If you have a clear definition of yourself, it does help from a job perspective. Whereas journalists used to cover assigned beats and work their way up, in a world with more transparency rather than objectivity, there is a little more room for people to call themselves experts.”

So whether you want to go into politics, journalism or you just want to become more informed, by educating yourself in a broad range of topics you will be better off. Since political science and journalism are so intertwined, this is a good path to venture down for anyone who wants a clearer understanding of our complex world.

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