In Defense of Repetition in the Media
So if you all are the foxes, who’s a hedgehog?
Uhhhh, you know … the op-ed columnists at the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal are probably the most hedgehoglike people. They don’t permit a lot of complexity in their thinking. They pull threads together from very weak evidence and draw grand conclusions based on them. They’re ironically very predictable from week to week. If you know the subject that Thomas Friedman or whatever is writing about, you don’t have to read the column. You can kind of auto-script it, basically.
It’s people who have very strong ideological priors, is the fancy way to put it, that are governing their thinking. They’re not really evaluating the data as it comes in, not doing a lot of [original] thinking. They’re just spitting out the same column every week and using a different subject matter to do the same thing over and over.
I’m not one to defend Thomas Friedman or his ideas, I don’t think the value of finding a way to be repetitive in the news while still drawing an audience is given enough credit. While people in the business are power consumers of information they must remember most people are not. After all only 59 percent correctly identified Joe Biden was the Vice President in 2010. A piece of information needs to be repeated dozens if not hundreds of times before it begins to penetrate the public awareness.
While it is important to evaluate new data as it comes in, there are many aspects of policy where new research shouldn’t be causing significant re-thinking. For many policy problems all the data that is needed has existed for years. For instance, we know the Electoral College is unfair and undemocratic. We don’t need more data or studies. What is needed is a way to repeat this fact in interesting ways and draw attention to the solution (national popular vote compact) until there is the political will for change.
Sadly, many of our problems aren’t elaborate puzzles that require complex new thinking. They are often simple problems with known solution that need to be repeatedly highlighted until they are adopted. The person who can write arguments for one solution a hundred times while still being interesting can have a much bigger impact than someone who writes about a hundred facts once.
Ironically, it is this “hedgehog” style that made Silver famous. His main accomplishments was finding a way to constantly repeat the basic fact that polling averages tend to be accurate predictors of elections in a way that kept people’s interest. He would integrate new polls as they were released but his core thinking and argument never really changed.
Illustration by Milo Winter, 1919