Horse Race Journalism: Not what it sounds like

“Horse Race Journalism” is a new term to me, but one I recently encountered when following the coverage of the US Presidential Race. Despite the apparent connotation, the phrase is not one used to suggest that the candidates running for President resemble horses, but rather represents the nature and culture of the media’s coverage of the candidates race to become President.

The persistent polling and emphasis of the polls in the media, metaphorically turn the contest into something similar to a horse race; who’s up in the polls, who’s down, who’s out? Indeed, newspapers and television networks seem to be captivated with polling, especially in the upcoming election, with certain candidates obsessed with how well they are doing in the polls, and even running their campaigns on the basis of the outcome and results of polls.

In the Republican race for example, the large amount of candidates running to be the nominee has led to media coverage focusing extensively on the polling of candidates as opposed to what journalists should be doing; scrutinizing and probing the policy proposals and other important political interests of the candidates. Such misguided focus has led to what some describe as a big loss for voters, whose bombardment with poll numbers instead of inquisitive and interesting questions and answers from their candidates may perhaps skew their views of those running for President.

According to Pew Research Centre, who review coverage of past Presidential Campaigns, journalism focusing on polls and tactics sometimes accounts for more than half of all air time in an election campaign. For example, their study on the 2008 election coverage found that 53% of the newshole studied focused on political matters, particularly tactics, strategy and polling, which was more than twice as much coverage that focused on policy (20%).

While polls have regularly had a big role to play in elections, this campaign has been particularly attentive to the results of them, with candidates only making the debate stage if their poll numbers are high enough, and positioned in order of their poll number.

Leading Republican candidate Donald Trump has even based his campaign around his poll numbers, using the media’s extensive coverage of them to his advantage. His official Twitter page has tweeted about his own poll results hundreds of times since he announced his candidacy, with many tweets just from the last few weeks announcing how impressive his percentage points have been. From tweeting about Reuters, to the amount his opposition have spent despite poor results, to Fox News, to his Democratic counterpart’s inferiority to him, as well as regional polls, Trump really does seem to have grown a penchant for polls.

The Deputy Editor of American media news blog site Gawker, Hamilton Nolan, has said on this topic:

 “Donald Trump is the best example of someone who’s incredibly gifted at getting free media coverage… any time you see a politician pulling off, or trying to pull off, a stunt or make a bold proposal, a lot of the reason behind that is for the media. Every campaign has to chase that free media coverage and the way to do that in America is to feed into the narrative of winning and losing and being exciting.”

To be fair to him, it is understandable. If you do well in polls, the media cover you, which means free publicity and free exposure, and this really does help campaigns, especially when getting a message out to the public is a crucial component of becoming elected, as you can read in my previous post.

So as polls are counted and candidates wait eagerly for their numbers to rise and their exposure to the public through media channels explode as a result, it seems this sort of journalism remains alive and well in the current political climate, with no sign of letting up. Let’s just hope in the end, the best horse wins.


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