Washington’s Media Maze

Policy analysis should not be merely an academic exercise. The goal is to inform and influence public policy, and therefore it has to reach the movers and shakers and the decisionmakers. That means it has to arrive at the right time via the right medium. But how does one do that in a world of network and cable TV, traditional and satellite radio, print newspapers and magazines, the online sites of the traditional media outlets and the proliferating Internet-only sources of information, email news services and listserves, laptops and tablets, Blackberries and iPhones and Androids, tweets and social networks, uTube and Tivo?

Well, one does it in many different ways because the target audience absorbs information via numerous routes. Fortunately, a remarkably helpful guide to the media maze has recently become available online thanks to the generosity of the National Journal. After years of proprietary surveys of how Washington insiders acquire their information, National Journal has decided to make the results available for free online at www.nationaljournal.com/wia. The Washington in the Information Age is a fascinating treasure trove of data about how Capitol Hill staff, federal officials, and the Beltway cognoscenti use a wide variety of information sources. And the data is all presented in an addictive interactive format that is easy to use and difficult to surf away from.

The online site enables one to look at responses to dozens of questions and to break out the results by the sector where the respondent works, by political party, and by age. Some results are predictable: Republicans read George Will and Democrats read Paul Krugman. Others are not: In many respects the 20-somethings are not that different from the 50-somethings in how they seek information. I’m not going to try to pinpoint all these distinctions. In what follows, all the percentages reflect the answers of the total pool of respondents. Although interesting, the differences among subgroups do not alter the overall picture.

As one would expect, when asked what is the source of information about breaking news events, the overwhelming favorites are email alert, news website, and television, with TV being particularly important for Capitol Hill staff who are rarely out of sight of a news channel. Twitter and RSS feeds rank almost as low as print magazines.

But when the question is how to acquire analysis and opinion about a national news story, print newspapers rival news websites for the lead, with more than 60% of respondents listing them among their top four sources. Only 20% list blogs among their top four, trailing behind radio. Blogs are making more inroads on Capitol Hill, where 35% of staff list them among their top four.

When asked how they read their daily news, the respondents vastly prefer screens to paper. About 40% rely on digital sources primarily or completely, and an additional one-third use print and digital equally. Fewer than 3% use print exclusively. This is not encouraging news for a magazine such as Issues, which is primarily a print medium. But Issues is not delivering daily news, and this audience has a very different approach to less time-sensitive information.

When they were asked how they read monthly magazines, the response was dramatically different. Three out of four respondents read them solely or mostly in print. Only 6% read them only in digital form. This probably reflects the length of the articles and the fact that they are reading them at home or on airplanes. It is reassuring to know that the magazine is not yet ready for the trash bin of history.

As significant as the medium in which information is consumed is the timeframe in which it is wanted. National Journal has been conducting this survey for many years, but in the past only small pieces of information were shared with outsiders. One critical insight that did emerge was the overwhelming importance of timeliness to Capitol Hill staff operating under the enormous pressure of the legislative agenda. Most staff focus on specific areas of policy and have little time to stay broadly informed. Even within their areas, they typically can concentrate only on the specific questions being actively debated in Congress. If the topic of your report or article is not on the agenda when it is published, do not expect Hill staff to read it right away. But when a topic is on the agenda, Hill staff often find it hard to acquire as much information as they want. For those who produce information and analysis, the key is to feed that information to the staff when they need it. It might be stale to you, but it could be a revelation to congressional staff.

The current survey provides more fine detail on the importance of timeliness. When asked where they would look for information they needed in the next two hours, and that’s not an unusual situation, the respondents overwhelmingly favored the major news sites and an Internet search. Only about 10% mentioned an academic expert. But if they had a couple of days to obtain the information, the leading sources would be the think tanks and academic experts, with about 65% of respondents naming them. Only about a quarter of the respondents listed blogs.

This should be very reassuring to those whose stock in trade is intellectual rigor. Although we hear plenty of moaning about the shallowness of policy debates and the dominance of bumper-sticker analysis, this survey indicates that the people who make and directly influence national policy value expertise and thorough analysis. For those of us who provide it, the key is to make certain that our contributions reach the target audience when they are wanted. Issues maintains a free searchable online archive of published articles and also assembles collections of articles on major topics such as energy, competitiveness, public health, and national security.

Washington is a noisy place, and the clamor for attention seems to create a cacophony of faceless voices of which only the loudest and crudest can be heard. When asked what word best describes their response to the proliferation of media content, the most common response was “overwhelmed.” But it appears that the voices of the better informed, the more thoughtful, and the more responsible are the ones that are being listened to.

When asked which sources of information they trust, 90% of respondents named the mainstream media such as the New York Times, CNN, and National Public Radio. Only 20% cited online-only sources such as the Huffington Post and Drudge Report, and 10% named blogs. The results were consistent when they were asked which columnists, bloggers, or opinion makers they follow regularly online. The favorites come from the print world: Krugman, Will, Thomas Friedman, and David Brooks. The online commentators such as Matt Drudge and Josh Marshall appear much further down the list.

The upshot of the survey is that although the paths by which news and analysis reaches the political elite is changing because of new technology, the sources of authoritative opinion are weathering the storm. Whether read online or in print, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal are still recognized as having the editorial judgment and journalistic standards that instill confidence. Uninformed opinion and simplistic analysis may seem to dominate debate in the crisis of the day, but when time allows—and eventually there is time—Washington turns to the intellectuals in think tanks and universities because they understand the value of deep knowledge and careful reasoning.

OK, this isn’t true of everyone in Washington, and perhaps it’s true only on the best days of those who participated in the survey. But it’s still a reminder to those capable of providing informed expert opinion that this is a valued commodity in Washington. We shouldn’t be tempted by the siren call of instant headlines, catchy one-liners, and volume-driven debates. That is not what will drive policy in the long run, and besides, we pointy heads aren’t very good at it.

Clearly written, evidence-based, made-available-when-needed policy analysis and prescriptions, even when produced on paper, does have power in Washington, and this survey shows that the users are asking for it.

Cite this Article

Finneran, Kevin. “Washington’s Media Maze.” Issues in Science and Technology 27, no. 3 (Spring 2011).

Vol. XXVII, No. 3, Spring 2011