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Are Consumers to Blame for the Media’s Focus on the Horse Race ?

- January 7, 2008

The complaints about media coverage of campaigns are well-known: too much focus on personality, strategy, and who is ahead and behind (i.e.,the horse race). For recent amplifications of these complaints, see Brad DeLong, Ezra Klein, and Christopher Hayes. See this study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism for evidence from the current presidential campaign.

What are the causes for such coverage? Here is one possibility: the tastes of readers. Imagine the following study. You are given a CD-ROM that has tons of media coverage about a presidential election on it. As you navigate this content, researchers track what you read and for how long. (Click here and then click on through to see the content yourself.) The main findings were these:

bq. Given access to a wide variety of news reports about the presidential campaign during the weeks immediately preceding the 2000 election, we find that voters were drawn to reports on the horse race and strategy. Strategy reports proved especially popular among readers with higher levels of political engagement. In closing, we consider what journalists might do to make stories about the issues more relevant and marketable.

That is from this paper (gated) by Shanto Iyengar, Helmut Norpoth, and Kyu S. Hahn. The finding about the preferences of politically engaged participants is particularly important, because these sorts of people are the most devoted consumers of political news. This finding also supports Andrew Gelman’s hypothesis that people who read campaign news tend to know who they support and so are less in need of information about issues and more in need of information about whether their preferred candidate will win.

Of course, this study doesn’t suggest that other factors aren’t to blame. Irrespective of audience pressures, journalists like writing about strategy and the horserace because they get to insert their own interpretations. This is more fun than merely reporting “the news,” especially because the candidates have no incentive to generate “news” but instead an incentive to stay on message, and naturally journalists get tired of hearing the same speech day after day.

What can be done? Iyengar and colleagues close with this:

bq. What can journalists do to make stories about the issues more relevant or marketable? One approach might be to piggyback information about issue positions onto stories dealing with the personal side of the candidates. Alternatively, polling on the issues allows reporters to file policy-oriented horserace stories. The page-visit data also suggest that painting the candidates’ issue agendas in broad, ideological strokes is more likely to attract attention than reporting on specific issues. Although these suggestions may strike purists as a dilution of journalistic standards, some innovation seems essential if issue reporting is to survive at all.