The Fact Tank (Winter 2013 Trust Magazine)

Author: Paul Farhi


03/08/2013 - As American political discourse grows less civil, more partisan, and divided by labels of red and blue, the Pew Research Center's neutral, nonpartisan analysis of the news and trends shaping the world puts the facts in black and white.

Like all great explorations, it started with some curiosity and a compelling question: What had happened to Mexican immigration to the United States amid the recession, increased border security, and the rise of Mexico's economy? Candidates across the political spectrum usually answered that question their own way, based largely on emotion, partisanship, and dog-eared historical reports. The Pew Hispanic Center in Washington tried a different approach: a factual investigation.

Using surveys, interviews, and numerous government data sources on both sides of the border, a team of demographers and researchers from the center reached a startling conclusion. After four decades during which an estimated 12 million Mexicans moved across the border, the flood of immigrants had dried up and was even showing signs of reversing. From 2005 to 2010, the center concluded, about 1.4 million Mexicans had moved north, offset by the same number who had moved with their U.S.-born children to Mexico. The center laid out its finding in the title of its report, Net Migration from Mexico Falls to Zero—and Perhaps Less.

Published in April 2012, the report set off a wave of news coverage that continued for months. Its conclusions became a thread woven into the debate over immigration policy during the presidential campaign. The report provided context for, among other things, discussion of Republican candidate Mitt Romney's notion of "self-deportation" for undocumented workers and President Barack Obama's executive order mandating provisions of the Dream Act, legislation that extends some citizenship benefits to the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants.

It was a textbook moment for the Hispanic center and its host organization, the Pew Research Center. At the same time, however, there was something familiar about it.  The Pew center's seven information projects have turned out hundreds of reports, polls, and studies over the years, and many have landed with similar force. The center's research—whether documenting Americans' declining interest in organized religion, public attitudes about the credibility of the news media, or the ways that teenagers use their smartphones—often becomes the plumb line for debates among journalists, policymakers, and political elites.

The research center is in the midst of the most significant management transition since its creation by The Pew Charitable Trusts.  Andrew Kohut, the eminent pollster who has overseen the center since its inception (and, before that, guided the flagship project, the Center for the People & the Press) is moving into a counselor's role, with a focus on the research center's global polling projects. His replacement as president is Alan Murray, a veteran Wall Street Journal reporter and editor.

Kohut came to Pew in 1995. He had helped to create the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press, and when the Times Mirror newspaper company ended its support of the polling operation, he was recruited by Rebecca W. Rimel, the Trusts' president. In the ensuing years, Pew created a number of like-minded projects to provide timely, objective research on journalism, the Internet, religion, global attitudes, and the nation's rapidly growing Hispanic population.

In 2003, Kohut joined Donald Kimelman, the Pew managing director who oversaw most of this work, and former Washington Post reporter Paul Taylor, who would become the center's executive vice president, in mapping out an idea to bring all of Pew's information projects under a single umbrella: a nonprofit subsidiary of the Trusts to be called the Pew Research Center. What started in 1995 with just four employees has grown to 130 staff members based in Washington. As the center's evolution continues, its basic mission remains unchanged. Kohut, Kimelman, and Murray said the research center will hew to the same three-pronged formula that Kohut established when he arrived at Pew: Undertake comprehensive, rigorous research on important issues of the day; operate in a nonpartisan way without taking advocacy positions; and serve up the results in an easily understood, nontechnical fashion.

Each man uses more or less the same phrase to describe how the center conducts its research: "We don't have a dog in the fight." Policy pronouncements are forbidden; raw data and solid "knowledge creation" are venerated.

"We don't give counsel," Kohut said. "We provide information. It's not my job to convince people of what reality is. It's my job to present our take on reality and the basis on which we came to those conclusions." He added, "You can't have a conversation about important issues unless there's some foundation of common understanding and some common facts."

One of the center's guiding principles, he said, is its independence. The Pew Charitable Trusts, which does take stands on policy matters, conducts and is guided by its own nonpartisan research on environmental, health, state, and consumer issues.  But it leaves decisions about what the Pew Research Center staff researches to the center's leadership.  "I'm grateful," Kohut said. "Rebecca Rimel and Pew's board really get what we do."

The Pew Research Center's leaders contend that their neutral approach has become increasingly rare in a city and nation that have grown more starkly partisan, and in a political culture that seems increasingly contentious about what constitutes a fact. Not long after its formation, the center began calling itself a "fact tank" (a phrase coined by Taylor) not just as a clever motto, but as a way to distinguish itself from Washington's think tanks. "We had an inkling then that we were headed for a world of red truth and blue truth," Taylor said.

Murray said he was troubled during his 10 years as the Journal's Washington bureau chief by the inability of policymakers and elected officials to engage in civil discourse—a divide, he said, that is due in part to the lack of a shared set of facts.  "I look at all the institutions in this town that have either become increasingly partisan or had their reputations for nonpartisanship destroyed," he said. "And I look at how many institutions have the ability to offer information that's trusted by people on both sides of the aisle. It's a tiny list. And the Pew Research Center sits at the top of it."

Kohut's innovation—what Murray calls the research center's "special alchemy"—was having journalists and social scientists collaborate on the work. Kohut is himself a hybrid. A former president of the Gallup Organization and founder of the polling firm Princeton Survey Research Associates, he began working with journalists while with Times Mirror, which then published the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers. They knew how to report and tell a story; he and his fellow polling experts knew how to conduct quantitative research. "The trick in these operations was to teach the reporters to count and to teach the researchers to write," Kohut said.

The Pew Research Center has a distinguished staff of demographers, pollsters, and researchers, but its leadership is primarily from journalism. Kimelman, the Pew executive who chairs the center's board, had a distinguished career as a reporter and editor at ThePhiladelphia Inquirer. Lee Rainie, who heads the Internet & American Life Project, was managing editor of U.S. News & World Report. Taylor, who, beyond his executive duties, oversees the center's Social & Demographic Trends project and Hispanic center, had been a longtime political reporter and foreign correspondent for the Post. Another Post reporter, Roberto Suro, was the founding director of the Hispanic center. Tom Rosenstiel, who recently left as director of the center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, had been a reporter and media critic at the Los Angeles Times. Elizabeth Mueller Gross, the vice president who oversees the center's operations, was with U.S. News & World Report for nearly 20 years. And, of course, there's Murray, whose journalistic bona fides hang on his office wall: Pulitzer Prizes awarded in 2000 and 2002 for reporting projects he supervised at the Journal.
Until Jan. 1 this year, the only nonjournalists in the senior ranks were Luis Lugo, director of the Forum on Religion & Public Life, who holds a doctorate in political science from the University of Chicago, and Scott Keeter, director of survey research, who has a doctorate in political science from the University of North Carolina. They have been joined by Kohut's successor as director of the Pew Research political survey unit, Michael Dimock, a veteran pollster who holds a doctorate in political science from the University of California, San Diego, and Amy Mitchell, acting director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and a former researcher with the American Enterprise Institute, who helped Rosenstiel found the project in 1997.

By design, the academics and journalists complement one another. It's doubtful that the center's work would have the same intellectual grounding and necessary rigor without the cadre of research pros who collect and crunch the data. It's also unlikely that its reports would have the same zip and timeliness without the input of newspaper journalists such as senior writer D'Vera Cohn, religion associate director Alan Cooperman, both formerly of the Post, and the Project for Excellence in Journalism's Mark Jurkowitz, who had been at TheBoston Globe.

"It's important to recognize that what's happening here is unique," Murray said. "You don't see it happening at academic institutions. You don't see it happening at most think tanks. And you don't see it at news organizations."

The presence of so many journalists, he said, gives the center its nose for hot topics and averts the academic tendency to pursue narrow, inward-looking research that is primarily of interest to other academics. In fact, on the day we spoke (only Murray's fifth on the job), the morning's Washington Post seemed to validate the center's media instincts. On its front page, above the fold, the paper carried news of a Social & Demographic Trends study showing that the U.S. birthrate had dropped to the lowest level ever recorded.

Such prominent press coverage is one part of the center's vision. As Kohut put it, "The idea is to get our material into the conversation." Attention from the news media is one measure of success; so are invitations to speak to government officials. Pew Forum staff recently briefed officials from the State Department, United Nations, and European Union on its one-of-a-kind findings about religion's role in sub-Saharan Africa and religious restrictions around the world.

"You go over to the State Department, and they tell you how important our information about Pakistan is to them in making assessments about what the situation is like there," said Kohut. "That's a pretty good indicator that we succeeded, too."

Taylor said one advantage of a journalist-centric organization is its elevated metabolism. Although some of the center's research projects are years in the making, many are the product of mere months, and sometimes only weeks or days, of labor. On each project, "We'll ask, ‘What are the research questions, and how long will it take to learn the answers?' " Taylor said. "If the answer is, ‘A couple of months,' I'll say, only half in jest, ‘How about next Tuesday?' "

As with the Hispanic center's immigration study, much of the research center's work starts with an informed hunch, some brainstorming, and a lot of investigative zeal. After the 2004 election, for example, Kohut and others noticed that the voting patterns of young people had begun to veer sharply from those of their elders. Documenting the diverging voting patterns would have been a relatively simple exercise (and a duplicative one, given the wealth of academic political science research). Instead, the center began a continuing effort to understand generational differences on a range of issues. It led in 2010 to a detailed study of 50 million Americans in the 18-to-29 cohort, Millennials: Confident, Connected, Open to Change, which drew contributions from all seven of the center's projects.

Smart timing and a little foresight help, too. Reports are often keyed to major news developments, particularly the presidential campaign, which is prime time for the center's public opinion polls and news media studies. Reports typically are written in plain, uncluttered language, supplemented by charts and graphics that illustrate important findings. The center popularizes its work through media interviews—Kohut is a regular on NPR and the "PBS NewsHour"—and has found new ways to get the word out.  A midsummer study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism about YouTube's impact as a news source—A New Kind of Visual News—featured Amy Mitchell in a "visual discussion" of the report: a video posted, of course, on YouTube. What's more, the most popular features ever to appear on the center's website weren't studies or data. They were quizzes that permitted visitors to assess their knowledge about major world religions and the 2012 presidential campaign.

Murray and Kohut said they would like to extend the center's approach into new fields. There was talk several years ago of starting an economic project, but that was rejected on the grounds that the subject is well covered elsewhere, Kohut said. Both mention education as a promising arena; Murray also believes biotechnology could be fertile.

More immediately, the next opportunity is outside the United States. The research center has established a strong foothold overseas through its Global Attitudes polling group, which has conducted major international surveys since 2002 on topics of transnational concern such as globalization, terrorism, and U.S. leadership around the world.  The Pew Forum also does survey work and other kinds of research internationally—it surveyed  25,000 people in 19 countries to produce widely cited reports about religious tolerance and diversity in Africa in 2010, for example—and more is to come. Last June, Pew's board approved a substantial increase in the Global Attitudes project's budget to allow it to expand its work abroad. The international focus is a back-to-the-future move for Kohut; one of his fondest career memories is of conducting polling in the Soviet Union as it began to collapse in 1990.

"We're a trusted source for research in this country," Kimelman said. "The question is how we take that overseas. We know there's a big appetite for it. A Pew Research Center for Europe, and one for Asia—that's something we're interested in."

Murray said he foresees another way for the center to grow: via partnerships with third parties. The center has done some cooperative ventures, such as multilayered projects with the John Templeton Foundation to study religious attitudes and document worldwide religious affiliations, and with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for a 2012 survey of the digital revolution's impact on books and libraries. "I believe there are other potential partners out there who would like to be, want to be, and would happily be introduced to the cause," he said. One of his roles will be to find them.

As the center continues its evolution, the new leadership vows that the fundamental values that have guided its work will remain unchanged. "At the end of the day," Murray said, "you have to believe that good, reliable, trusted information is the currency that democracies live by, and that the availability of that information will make the world a better place."

Paul Farhi reports on the news media for TheWashington Post. He last wrote for Trust about the Pew Research Center's ongoing study of how the public receives news and information in the digital age.

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