How horse race journalism changed modern elections
Michael Galley examines the concept of Horse Race Journalism and how this affects modern election coverage.
Throughout the presidential election, US election coverage has been targeted towards answering one question in particular: ‘Who’s going to win?’ That journalists are fascinated with predicting the election’s outcome is hardly surprising, but is it beneficial? Would voters not better of reading about the policy promises of each candidate rather than their polling predictions. This phenomenon of focusing on the likely outcome of an election, rather than the determinants of this outcome, is what’s commonly referred to as ‘horse race journalism’ and many journalistic scholars argue that it degrades democracy.
According to a study from the Harvard Kennedy School, policy stands accounted for just 10% of the overall campaign coverage of the 2016 US presidential election, suggesting that important policy issues are all too frequently overlooked. By journalists placing such a heavy focus on the election ‘race’, the public suffers from a scarcity of information regarding crucial policy issues and as such they head to the polls well-informed of the likely outcome, but without knowledge of what this outcome might mean for them, and the country as a whole. Assuming that voters make objectively better choices the more well-informed they are, then too much horse race journalism has negative consequences for the country as a whole.
By constantly reporting which candidate is leading the polls, horse race journalism can subvert and manipulate the eventual election outcome. Stronger candidates are often subject to political handicapping by the media in order to make the race more competitive (and therefore more exciting). For example, recent Fox News coverage of a Trump rally in Wisconsin quotes Trump labelling Biden as “the candidate of rioters, looters, gun-grabbers, flag-burners, lobbyists, and special interests”; a claim that is largely without factual backing. Stronger candidates can also suffer from the turnout suppression that can occur when would-be-voters stay at home, based off a miscalculated confidence that their candidate will win regardless. Although several other factors were at play, the media reporting that Clinton held as much as a fourteen-point lead over Trump in the polls in the run-up to the 2016 election partially explains the reduced turnout of Democrat voters in 2016 compared to 2012 and 2008, where the election race was seen as much tighter and therefore the outcome much less certain.
People want to be entertained constantly and thus the excitement of horse race journalism engages them in a way that lengthy pieces on policy stands no longer can.
In the mid-20th century it was common to see political journalists as a non-partisan proxy between candidates and voters. Their role was to report on campaign events and, without bias, inform their readers of each candidate’s policies. The rise of cable television networks in the 1980s and 1990s, which offered a more partisan brand of news coverage, and the spread of social media – which has made it much easier for politicians to communicate directly with voters (Trump, for example, averages more than 30 tweets and retweets a day) – has contributed to a more independent press not afraid to take a stance. Although this has contributed to the horse race journalism epidemic, the increasing role of the media as a political actor itself serves to make politics, and election-races in particular, more interesting and more accessible.
Horse race journalism isn’t going anywhere any time soon. This high-paced, twist and turn style of election coverage fits seamlessly with today’s entertainment culture. People want to be entertained constantly and thus the excitement of horse race journalism engages them in a way that lengthy pieces on policy stands no longer can. At the very least horse race journalism engages peoples’ attention during an election campaign in an era where the public attention span has become increasingly fleeting.