Choosing Process over Policy: The Unavoidability of Horserace Journalism


January 2, 2021




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Photo edited by Lilian Manansala. Race track photo by Suwatwongkham [iStock Getty Images] and Dorothy Chandler Pavilion during 2020 general elections [Lilian Manansala]

During the 2016 presidential campaigns, the news stations of television’s biggest networks — ABC, NBC, and CBS — spent a total of 32 minutes on policy issues. The rest of the coverage? Devoted to horserace journalism, a type of reporting that focuses on the game strategy of campaigns and elections.

Some scholars, citizens, and even journalists themselves, think outsized attention on political races and polling does a disservice to the public. Disproportionate coverage on the competition between candidates eclipses discussion of the policies that affect people in a meaningful way.

Yet to people working directly in the field, the opposite is true. “I think that there’s considerably less horserace journalism than in years past,” wrote Marc Lacey, National Editor of the New York Times, in an email to The Click. “It used to be the predominant way in which elections were covered. We produce far less journalism these days on what a particular candidate said today and what their rival said in response.” 

To others, issues like healthcare and tax reform continue to be ignored in a news space dominated by polling results and the hyper focus on leads, margins, and points. 

“I’ve been watching this now most of my life and the poll obsession has not diminished,” said Dr. Todd Gitlin, professor and chair of the interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in Communication at the Columbia Journalism School, told The Click. “Because of the financial crisis of the news organizations, they’re looking for ways to spend less money. The financial advantages of the poll obsession are considerable.” 

Much research by political communication scholars and media experts find that the predominance of horserace journalism is a problem — but the issues are actually more nuanced. The use of election coverage and opinion polls are not only important and valuable but also may be inescapable in today’s media world, news business model, and the current political-psychological ecosystem.

Personality vs. Policy

Over the last 30 years, reporting on candidates’ electability and likability has increasingly outweighed stories featuring policy issues and candidate leadership qualities. The idea is that too much emphasis has been placed on charisma and not enough on the capability to govern.

“Things like gaffes, campaign events, personal details about the candidates — they grab the media attention because they are perceived to be things that are going to sell newspapers and are going to get people watching the news channels,” said Dr. Richard Thomas, a scholar at Swansea University in Wales, U.K., and co-author of “Reporting Elections: Rethinking the Logic of Campaign Coverage,” to The Click.

“Beyond the election, these things barely matter,” said Thomas. “The policies that these people will then put into practice once you’ve voted them into power have a big impact on your life. They will determine how COVID is addressed, how Black Lives Matter is treated, how inequality is dealt with, how poverty is dealt with, how the economy recovers.” 

Newsworthiness is defined by people’s interest, especially in today’s attention economy, regardless of whether the information is positive or negative. In fact, negative news tends to attract more attention.

As humans, we are hardwired to pay attention to what could endanger or threaten us. Negativity bias was useful in teaching us to avoid predators and poison, but thousands of years of evolution now keep us fixated on negative news. Give Donald Trump the visibility of the most powerful position in the world and you have a recipe for a cult of personality and a media that feeds it.

“Trump is a highly newsworthy, controversial, unconventional politician that just attracts the media,” Thomas said of news coverage of the president. “If he’s not attracting it, he does something to attract it. He sends a tweet, he says something controversial. He knows how to garner the media attention. It’s difficult to ignore someone when they’re being controversial.”

What Dominates News in Elections

Harvard’s Shorenstein Center found in their study on the 2016 presidential primaries that 56% of news coverage was on game strategy, 33% on campaign process, and 11% dedicated to substantive issues. For the general election, only 10% of the coverage was on policy.

From the time he announced his run in 2015, Trump dominated the news. During the primaries, Bernie Sanders received less than half the coverage Trump did; Hillary Clinton, less than three-fourths.

That Trump was the focus of the news is obvious, but despite the press calling each other out, media heads like CNN President Jeff Zucker took full advantage of the spectacle-as-profit dynamic: “The idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way,” Zucker said in an interview with the New York Times‘ Jonathan Mahler.

The sports frame of horserace journalism dials into those of us who are fascinated with competition. In a game, there is a winner and a loser. Politics is a zero-sum game. As a competitive species, humans are drawn to the fight — whether it’s a possible misstep or blunder of the opposition, the matador against a raging bull, sports-deprived, pandemic marble racing, or during the Vice Presidential debates, the absurdity of Pence’s fly.

“You could say that the democratic process is suffering as a consequence because citizens are not getting the information that they need to make good sensible decisions at the ballot box,” said Thomas. “They’re basing their decisions on a scandal or a personality or a gaffe. The best example was in the first televised debates. There was no policy discussion in that at all. We are in the middle of one of the most serious pandemic this planet has ever faced, and yet it was Mike Pence’s fly that was being discussed on the television and the newspapers. Talk about fiddling while Rome burns. That’s exactly what is happening with horserace journalism. We are ignoring the things that are important.”

For better or worse, media makes more money when presenting the unusual and upsetting. In 2016 Leslie Moonves referred to Donald Trump’s success saying, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

As subscribership decreases and the advertising-rich print model is subsumed by digital news, publishers and editors, out of an effort to survive, serve what they know the reader will consume. Stories on political gaffes and razor thin margins may not be high-quality journalism, but controversy and competition drive revenue because they are much sexier to the average viewer than labor rights or climate change — and also more convenient to cover. 

“Horserace journalism has been with us for a long time, because it’s also relatively easy and cheap to produce,” said Dr. Regina Lawrence, Research Director of the Agora Journalism Center at University of Oregon, to The Click. Lawrence has been studying strategic game coverage for over 25 years. “It’s prevalent because election polling has become a big investment and product for big news organizations. It’s sort of the Nate Silver effect and the success of FiveThirtyEight — the media tried to emulate that style of journalism, obsessives really tracking and analyzing election polls.”

Unlike smaller organizations, bigger legacy sites have the resources to cover policy and conduct their own polling: “Conducting quality national and state polls, which The Times does, is extremely expensive,” said Lacey. “We had more journalists covering this last presidential election than ever before, and that included a large group of investigative reporters who were delving into policy matters.”

Who Really Consumes Political News

If policy should be afforded more coverage, it’s worth looking at those who are the most politically invested.

“It’s important that we distinguish between the news audience and the American public. People conflate the two and they get concerned because they feel like America’s hopelessly divided,” said Dr. Kathleen Searles, Louisiana State University professor in Communications and Political Science, to The Click. “Recent research suggests that [more politically engaged] people are about only 20% of the American public. Their priorities and attitudes actually don’t reflect the American public writ large.”

Ongoing studies may show that people are more politically engaged when the political climate is bad. In the U.S., voter turnout reached an all time high in 2020 — a year in which America had the highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths worldwide, a crippling economic crisis, deep racial division, and in Trump’s norm-breaking, controversial presidency, what many perceived as an existential threat to the nation’s democracy. Expectedly, political interest surges during election years.

If only a small percentage of the general population is politically engaged outside of election season, perhaps high voter turnout is more a result of partisanship and identity politics.

“We have some research that suggests that the horse race is in demand and that people prefer the horse race,” Searles said. “People tend to have their in-groups and out-groups, and this sort of preference is reflected even in their news. A horse race gives you that sort of feel good in-group information, and in a way that policy coverage just doesn’t.”

Being equipped to provide both polling and interpretation of data is useful for a diversity of readers drawn to different aspects of campaigns.

“Polling still gets a great deal of attention but we track polls in a particular part of our web site for those who are polling junkies and put a premium on interpreting the polls and not merely reporting who is up and who is down,” said Lacey. “Readers want in-depth insightful political coverage. Any news outlet that isn’t providing that is acting out of a lack of imagination and not because of market forces.”

Polling and the Path of Less Resistance

The reliance on polling — which were considered failures in 2016, 2018, and to some degree 2020 — creates further mistrust of the press and government. The 24/7 rapid news delivery of points and percentages has led to misinterpretation and errors, further eroding faith in the media. 

Polling, however, is one way for highly educated, elite politicians who may be “out-of-touch” to understand what the everyday voter cares about.

“Tactically, being able to step outside of our own biases by using polling to figure out what people actually want and what inspires people is a very important thing. Otherwise you’re just campaigning on the wrong things,” said David Shor, former head of political data science at Civis Analytics and who worked for the Obama administration, to The Click. “I think it’s the core problem from a practitioner perspective in politics — how do you step outside of your own biases in order to connect with voters? Polling is how you do that.”

Polling also spells out a very clear narrative. “If you’re running polls about who’s ahead and who’s behind, you create a certain suspense,” said Gitlin. “Those are easily comprehensible stories that people can glom on to and say, ‘Oh yeah, well, I know what’s going on.’ This collusion between the supply side and the demand side is very powerful.”

Top survey and polling organizations like Pew Research have made efforts to include key issues and comprehensive data — however, journalists may feel constrained when selecting what statistics make the most enticing narratives.

“We do have evidence that journalists cherry pick polls, and that’s somewhat to be expected, right? There is a lot of polling and only so much air time or space,” Searles said. “Journalists prefer polls that show exciting races rather than non-exciting results, so news values dictate that you’re going to pick the [data] most exciting to your audience.”

Lawrence argues that the prevalence of game strategy may also be more about ease of coverage and less about public demand. “Horserace coverage puts journalists in a position that many may feel more comfortable in, because they’re essentially just a sportscaster. They’re able to be even handed about strategy, tactics and the standing in the polls. You don’t have to go to hard questions of policy, character, or ethics or other things that the public probably really does care about.”

“It’s easy and repeatable, meaning you can do it for every election,” said Dr. Jay Rosen, a writer and associate professor at New York University, to The Click. ”It has a superficial kind of excitement to it because race is always exciting, right? It provides a built-in narrative and suspense, ‘Who’s gonna win?’ It allows journalists to become savvy judges.”

Sports-like coverage is exciting. Nate Silver’s popular FiveThirtyEight is an opus to data analytics with the Politics and Sports tabs side by side. Like free throw shooting records and batting averages, politicians and their parties can be broken down into voting records and campaign finance ledgers. Nevertheless, polling failures in 2016 and 2020 have upended the industry and experts admit that changes must be made.

Policies can be complicated and project a distant, tentative agenda, whereas personality is here, now, evident. Issues don’t catch as many eyeballs as adversarial attacks do. Though op-eds clamor for change and editors-in-chief like Ben Smith apologize for helping to usher in the use of sports terminology, substantive policy concerns may continue to be overshadowed by close races, political gaffes, and divisive rhetoric.

Instead of decrying game strategy coverage altogether, the best approach might be keeping in mind that the media still has a choice.

“I think it’s fine that part of campaign coverage is to inform people who’s winning. Who’s likely to win, who has a real chance who doesn’t have a real chance — that’s all valid information,” said Rosen. “The problem with horse race coverage is not that you’re telling people who’s going to win, it’s that it becomes the template for all campaign coverage.”

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