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Political classes examine election coverage

Maddie Daly | Tuesday, November 6, 2012


Voter education has long been a focal point of any election, and several Notre Dame professors took that a step further this semester by teaching courses on the American political system and this year’s campaigns. 

Political science professor Peri Arnold teaches a course titled “Presidential Leadership,” and he said he has specifically integrated the 2012 election into his material.

“We have discussed the campaign for about 30 minutes each Monday of the semester,” Arnold said.  “I’ve been struck by the students’ perceptiveness and objectivity in these discussions.”

From these discussions over the final stretch of the election season, Arnold said he believes his students to be alert and informed voters.

“I think the students I know through my classes are thoughtful people, and, consequently, thoughtful voters,” Arnold said. 

Although partisan arguments are a major risk when discussing politics with intelligent and competitive Notre Dames students, Arnold said the conversation in his classroom every Monday has stayed tame.

“There has been a complete absence of heated partisanship,” Arnold said. “We might be doing something wrong in my POLS 30001, but we’ve not had a ‘hot button’ issue in the sense that sharp words were used or heated exchanges ensued.”  

Similarly, in American Studies professor Josh Roiland’s “Journalism and American Democracy” class, students debating major issues have avoided serious partisan disagreements.

“We don’t necessarily debate the partisan issues  – Is Obama’s health care law a good thing? What’s the best way to fix the economy? – but rather we talk about how those issues are presented to the public via various news sources, and how the public can and does use that information to make informed decisions,” Roiland said.  

The course differs from Arnold’s in that Roiland specifically asks his students to look at media coverage of the election rather than the content of the election itself. 

“I teach the course ‘Journalism and American Democracy’, so in our class many of the conversations have been about the coverage of the campaign,” Roiland said.  “But we don’t talk about the news coverage in terms of ‘bias’ which is, unfortunately, the vocabulary so many people use when discussing the news media.”

As a class, Roiland explained, they try to avoid the severely opinionated networks.  

“Now, of course, many television pundits, whether they be Fox News or MSNBC, certainly have opinions and share them freely – and loudly – on television,” Roiland said.  “But I’m talking about more traditional, so-called ‘objective’ arenas of news.  We look at the way campaign coverage fits into pre-existing narratives about the country, about Republicans and Democrats, and about popular topics, whether they be health care, the economy, or the war.”  

Roiland praised the in-depth coverage from the one particular online media source that has covered the election extensively this year. 

“One of the most important developments that I see in this campaign has to do with Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog for The New York Times,” Roiland said.  “He’s a statistician who aggregates a large number of state polls to give a larger sense of where the candidates stand in relation to the Electoral College. Silver has been saying – and showing, statistically – that in fact the probability of Obama winning is, as of his blog [this past weekend], around 80 percent.”  As of Monday night, Silver’s forecast stood at a 92 percent chance of an Obama victory.

This controversial prediction has sparked conversation in Roiland’s class, especially pertaining to the reaction of conservative media outlets. 

“TV pundits (especially if they are conservative) hate what Silver is saying because it undermines what they are saying about Romney’s chances to win,” Roiland said. “And because so much of the journalism coverage is of the ‘horse race’ variety – that is, Obama’s ahead, now Romney’s ahead, etc. – Silver is also rendering that style irrelevant.”

Roiland’s students are able to see both sides of this argument and make a very educated vote based on the wide range of media they have studied, he said. Roiland is a traveling professor and only offers these classes at Notre Dame this year. 

“But ideally, wherever I end up, I would like to teach the ‘Journalism and American Democracy’ class every semester because its basic question – What is the relationship between journalism and American democracy? – is always important,” Roiland said.  “Looking at that relationship during an election year heightens the stakes.”