Digital Publishing

Why Journalists Should Stay Away from ‘Horse Race’ Reporting in 2020

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Are you ready for the great media mea culpa following the 2020 campaign?

After every major election cycle of the modern era, journalists from across the country all cross their arms, hang their heads low and sadly admit their coverage once again devolved into the type of horse race reporting they love to criticize.

“I think we should all resolve to spend less time, or perhaps no time at all, on horse race polls that project forward to the 2020 presidential election,” Sally Buzbee, the executive editor at the Associated Press, proudly proclaimed on CNN back in January. But at least Buzbee was savvy enough to know there is a less than zero percent chance of that happening.

“I don’t actually think anyone is going to follow my resolution, but I think we all should,” Buzbee quickly added.

Despite all the post-election hand ringing, lots of journalists are trapped in a perpetual cycle, where coverage tends to focus on poll numbers, the amount of money raised and the tactics of campaigning. It’s a coverage style where policy issues are largely non-existent, and the importance of voters is reduced into quantifiable blocks of data that can be sliced and diced to feed just about any narrative.

Plus, let’s just be honest here—we don’t know what’s going to happen in the election, so why are we placing so much emphasis of our reporting on trying to predict the outcome?

Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan researched the issue in 2016 while she was the public editor of the New York Times. She found that in a two-week period, more than three out of every four articles about the election could reasonably be called “horse race” stories.

“The horse race has been the dominant theme of election news since the 1970s, when news organizations began to conduct their own election polls,” Thomas E. Patterson, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Bradlee professor of government and the press, wrote in 2016. “Since then, polls have proliferated to the point where well over a hundred separate polls—more than a new poll each day—were reported in major news outlets during the 2016 general election.”

So, what steps can both local and national journalists take to improve their reporting as media companies ramp up ahead of the 2020 election? Here are some simple suggestions.

Think About Your Readers

By and large, the people reading your stories are also potential voters in your community, and the issues they care about should arguably be the most important aspect of your election reporting. How often can you honestly say your readers care about behind-the-scenes machinations or the tactics of a political campaign?

Press critic and New York University professor Jay Rosen has been beating this drum for several years. Rosen’s advice to journalists is to focus your election reporting on a so-called “citizens agenda” that highlights the voice of potential voters and what they want to know about the candidates.

The Charlotte Observer was an early pioneer of Rosen’s approach way back during the 1992 and 1996 elections, where they focused their reporting on variations of a very simple question put to readers: “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?”

“We should write about what (our readers and viewers) care about and how a particular candidate would affect their lives,” Jim Morrill, a political reporter for the Observer, wrote in an essay for Nieman Reports. “Too often the latest tweets, polls, or other shiny objects of politics have little to do with that.”

Stop Focusing So Much on “Insider Baseball

There is a shared fixation among political reporters to focus on covering the “insider baseball” of political campaigns, which results in journalists leaning on strategists and campaign insiders for their reporting, which has obvious consequences.

“By quoting the strategists—time and time again—journalists helped to reify their roles and power over the electorate,” said Sharon Jarvis, an associate professor of communication studies and associate director at the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas.

One way to help sever that connection is to spend less time on Twitter, which is over-saturated with both reporters, insiders and extreme voices. Back in April, New York Times data reporters Nate Cohn and Kevin Quealy broke down how Democrats on social media are dominated by progressive activists, while offline they’re outnumbered roughly 2-to-1 by more moderate and diverse members of the party.

Brainstorm A Lot of Story Ideas

It may seem obvious, but the more story ideas you can brainstorm, the more likely you’ll write election stories that are engaging to your local audience.

Back in 2016, the Australian Broadcast Company (ABC News) turned to the reader engagement platform Hearken to crowdsource ideas for its political coverage of the country’s federal election. In under two months, the newsroom was flooded with more than 2,400 questions from citizens across the country, which was eventually narrowed down and covered as the election’s 12 most important topics.

Another potential model for news organizations would be WNYC’s “30 Issues in 30 Weeks,” where the “The Brian Lehrer Show” focused its weekly coverage on the details of a single issue of importance to listeners. The election topics ran the gamut from eliminating college debt to defining political correctness.

Reporting on the Ups and Downs

Politics is as much about voters as it is about people, and reporting on campaign dysfunction, stressed-out candidates and yes, the occasional poll numbers, do have their role in campaign coverage.

There is an argument to be made that informing voters who’s winning and who’s losing is important information, especially when it comes to candidates who share many of the same policy views. And obviously, media outlets are writing a wide variety of stories on both local and national elections.

“Without the work of election handicappers, coverage would come to resemble an endless series of policy white papers that nobody reads,” Politico’s Jack Shaffer noted.

He’s right, of course. But as with everything, what we’re striving for is some level of balance between the importance of presenting relevant information to voters and entertaining readers with all the action and drama that come pre-packed with every political campaign.

“In covering elections, we shouldn’t forget about the broccoli,” Morrill wrote. “But we also need the meat and potatoes.”

Rob TornoeRob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor and writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach him at robtornoe@gmail.com.

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