Opinion: FiveThirtyEight Founder Probe: Is Nate Silver a Journalist?

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October 13, 2021

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Statistician Nate Silver became famous for his data modeling, which led to him correctly calling the results in 49 out of 50 states in the 2008 presidential election. His model went on to predict the winner of all 50 states in the 2012 presidential election, a feat it has not repeated since. Silver has turned the system into a media empire, transforming his blog, FiveThirtyEight, into a website that has since been sold to ESPN. 

He uncovered information no one else knew seemingly out of thin air, just like a journalist would. He authored books, including one on the New York Times bestseller list, and serves as the editor-in-chief at a credible news organization.

But is Silver a journalist?

Discovering previously unknown information is one of the basic requirements of investigative journalism, so you could name him a journalist based on that alone. He discovered a fact and conveyed it to the public, causing people to think about something differently. Journalist, right?

No. 

FiveThirtyEight is a statistical analysis website that analyzes predictive data based on a slew of factors on sports and politics. The site itself employs journalists to write these data-driven stories using FiveThirtyEight’s predictive software as a primary source. But Silver, while serving as the head of the website, is not a journalist himself, according to Politico which claimed the “Nate Silver Effect” is changing political journalism while not claiming Silver as a journalist.

He may have an impact on journalists but even Politico isn’t naming him as a journalist. The closest he gets amongst any publications is The New Republic calling him a “data journalism blogger.”

Watching someone write does not make you a journalist, the same as being a Monday morning quarterback does not make you an actual NFL player.

When Silver appears on morning shows or CNN as a talking head, he is there in an informational capacity. The person interviewing him is the journalist, he is merely the source and nothing more. He can write as many tweets as he desires and threads long enough to be 1,200-word articles, but it will not make him a journalist any more than someone who posts tweets because they discovered a new conspiracy theory.

Silver is an author the same as an academic who publishes their research rather than a journalist. While he may be publishing work, it’s not of a journalistic nature.

But what makes a piece of writing journalism is the core of the argument here. Silver conveys new information to the public but it’s the way he does it, sputtering out facts rather than crafting a narrative, is not journalism — it’s data.

Journalism, at its core, is meant to explain to the reader in layman’s terms what is going on, provide connections and give background to things that may seem shocking.

The argument for the other side is easy: He writes, therefore he is a journalist with a capital “J.” The actual world of journalism is much murkier than that. He writes therefore he is a writer. He does not report, merely regurgitates his own data. A scientist is not considered a journalist because they write and regurgitate facts and we must analyze Silver by the same principles.

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