The real problem with “horse race” political journalism

One of the most common critiques of modern political journalism is that it focuses too much on “the horse race.”

That’s a valid criticism, obviously. The role of the press in a free society should be to inform and enlighten the people. In the context of elections, that should mean a lot of focus on issues and, yes, the occasional scandal, so that voters can make informed decisions when electing their representatives.

Horse race coverage, on the other hand, focuses on the election as if it were a sporting event. Who’s ahead? Who’s behind? Who stumbled? Who’s going to win? It treats each campaign as entertainment, critiquing a candidate’s performance and assigning ratings based on polls. The process turns reporters and analysts into announcers and touts and, crucially, it treats voters as if they’re really spectators and not participants.

Now, it happens that I have some experience when it comes to this horse racing stuff. I spent about 20 years as a serious student of the Daily Racing Form. And one thing I learned in that time and can say with absolute confidence is that touts and handicappers and experts are wrong far more often than they’re right.

Even the best handicappers get it wrong regularly. Even the most heavily favored horses lose. There is nothing more humbling than stating a prediction with unshakable certainty and then watching as events unfold in a completely different way.

That is maybe a lesson we should apply to any journalist who insists on treating politics as if it were a horse race. They’re probably wrong, no matter how confidently they express their opinion.

One research study of this kind of political coverage determined that it “increases political cynicism, reduces substance-based political knowledge, and discourages positive evaluations regarding the news items.”

One of the best critiques of this type of coverage comes from Sheila Coronel, who earned her journalistic credentials in the Philippines, a country that might have something to teach us about authoritarianism and dictatorships. She and her colleagues founded the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and she’s now the Director of the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia Journalism School

This excerpt is from her essay “The Role of the Media in Deepening Democracy”:

Serious reporting is difficult to sustain in competitive media markets that put a premium on the shallow and sensational. Moreover, the media are sometimes used as proxies in the battle between rival political groups, in the process sowing divisiveness rather than consensus, hate speech instead of sober debate, and suspicion rather than social trust. In these cases, the media contribute to public cynicism and democratic decay.

That’s a depressingly accurate picture of the modern political journalism landscape.

Ultimately, the only result that matters is the one delivered by the voters on election day. And as one of those voters, you’re a participant, not a spectator. Checking the polls occasionally is entertaining, but it shouldn’t influence your vote or your efforts on the part of the candidates you believe in. The only thing that matters there is your performance.