Nate Sliver, reigning king of political prognosticators after accurately applying his skills in statistics and mathematics to this month’s presidential election, offers his opinion on the future of journalism.
Why has the data-driven approach to predictions received so much attention recently, and what role have you and your team played in that?
I think people like those types of stories because—Moneyball is a part of it, right? And I think we have so much information now, we have so much data. We need better practices, strategies, techniques, to make better use of it. I think people are hungry for it. I think people do—appropriately—not trust the messenger so much. They don’t necessarily trust the reporter or the pundit to relay all the facts to them when they have so much information at their disposal, for free, basically. So it plays into that curiosity for what we do with all that information.
What does the growing popularity of this approach mean for the future of journalism and punditry in particular?
I think punditry serves no purpose. I don’t care if it has a future. For journalism though, there are two ways to do it. You can go and take your traditional journalist—and many of them are fantastically good reporters, very good writers, certainly The New York Times—and try to train them more in some math and probability and statistics. Or you can hire people who come from that background, where maybe now some papers are going to hire economics majors and math majors, fields that you wouldn’t typically enter if you want to go into journalism. But I would think—I guess I would predict—you’ll see more data-driven analysts or reporters. I think at some places, there are questions about where do these journalists fit in and what do you call them? Because the term reporter is now in context, but what is it, right? The New York Times, by hiring me, took a step to do that. The Washington Post has done that with Ezra Klein, but the Times, some of the best journalists are those who make their interactive graphics. And they really do consider themselves journalists, in terms of, “We’re trying to present complex information in a way that helps elucidate the truth to people.”
Since journalists are expected to apply a critical eye to the stories they write, it would make sense for them to know probability and statistics along with having other analytical abilities. I’m not sure that all journalism schools focus very much attention on teaching these skills.
Interactive graphics do seem like the big thing in journalism. Don’t most of us like playing with the data accompanying a story?
From Nate’s lips to God’s ears
My son is an aspiring journalist who is majoring in economics, so I hope Silver is correct in his view that data-driven reporting is on the rise.