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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

'horse race' journalism « Previous | |Next »
August 13, 2010

The normal way to cover an election is to cover campaign strategy, attack ads, candidate gaffes and poll numbers. Political journalism during an election campaign is limited to the day-to-day reporting of events in the campaign. The journalists highlight the cut and thrust of what the leaders are up to all day, and who is winning in terms of getting the best exposure in the media headlines. This construct is what we call news, which is then commented upon. The increasing reference to The Greens is what is new.

Ben Eltham in The longing for engagement at the ABC's The Drum says that:

The lack of attention to serious policy issues seems to have been one of the most common complaints about the 2010 federal election. Voters seem apathetic, the media cynical, politicians clueless. Above all, the dominant theme seems to be disengagement: between politicians and voters, between politicians and the media, and between the media and voters...No wonder, then, that the best election coverage of this campaign is to be found on an advertising show: the ABC1's Gruen Nation. When substantive policies are thin on the ground, when great moral challenges are cause for delay and procrastination, and when even the audience at a campaign debate can be accused of being biased, it's not surprising that the most insightful political analysis comes from a panel of ad-men.

My sentiments too. However, Eltham doesn't explore how the media is integrated into the stage-managed and media-centric nature of modern election campaigning in a televisual and multi-mediated society that has emerged during a protracted crisis of social democracy.

It's integration can be seen in what Jay Rosen of Pressthink who is in Australia for the Walkley Media Conference 2010, calls horse race journalism. He says:

Horse race journalism is a reusable model for how to do campaign coverage in which you focus on who's going to win rather than what the country needs to settle by electing a prime minister.And it's easy to do because you can kind of reuse it sort of like a Christmas tree every year and it requires almost no knowledge either. And it kind of imagines the campaign as a sporting event, right? And everything that happens in the campaign can potentially affect the outcome. And so you can look at it as 'How is it going to affect the horse race?' And every day you can ask, 'Who is ahead and what is their strategy?' And I think this perspective appeals to political reporters because it kind of puts them on the inside, looking at the campaign the way the operatives do. By the way, I'm told that you actually have a program here on Sunday morning called the Insiders.

Touche. The 'insiders' are the journalists who see themselves the chroniclers of the inside game and tell us from the point of view of the professional strategists who's doing better.

Rosen says that an alternative model of journalism:

might start with 'What do the people of Australia want this campaign to be about? What are the issues they want to see the candidates discussing?'And then to ask each day, 'Well how did we do on advancing the discussion of the citizens' agenda today?' Was it ignored? Was it addressed? Was it demagogued? Was it slighted? And if the journalists helped citizens get their agenda addressed during the campaign they would be performing something that's actually very important - a role that's very important for them to do.

This kind of journalism is definitely not done by the Canberra Press Gallery or by the traveling political journalists embedded in the political parties campaign.

A good example of the citizen's agenda population pressures and the state of our cities which the politicians reduce to immigration that surfaced on Q+A as a result of Dick Smith's Population Puzzle documentary. (You can watch it on iView). Few who practice the craft of journalism are looking at the election from the perspective of a better quality of life in our cities; the urban sprawl that is gobbling up valuable farmland; or the sustainability of our cities.

Instead of this we get horse race journalism based on the journalist with contacts eg., Glenn Milne being told information from inside a political campaign. These inside sources are authoritative and this supports said journalists claim that they have special insight into the political process that the rest of us don't have. That insight into the political party's strategy means that they can predict what happens next. That is why they are the classy professionals they are.

Rosen says that the practical strengths of horse race journalism are:

Who's-gonna-win is portable, reusable from cycle to cycle, and easily learned by newcomers to the press pack. Journalists believe it brings readers to the page and eyeballs to the screen. It "works" regardless of who the candidates are, or where the nation is in historical time. No expertise is actually needed to operate it.bIn that sense, it is economical.....Who's going to win -- and what's their strategy -- plays well on television, because it generates an endless series of puzzles toward which journalists can gesture as they display their savviness, which is the unofficial religion of the mainstream press. But the biggest advantage of horse-race journalism is that it permits reporters and pundits to "play up their detachment." Focusing on the race advertises the political innocence of the press because "who's gonna win?" is not an ideological question. By asking it you reaffirm that yours is not an ideological profession.

They identify with the strategists for a political campaign and their focus of whose going to win rather than policy debates, even though campaign tactics are not all that interesting in themselves. They see getting into policy as getting into what the Americans call the weeds.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 12:30 AM | | Comments (15)


What was Jay Rosen's address to the Walkley Media Conference 2010? I cannot find any content online.

According to Jay Rosen's twitter stream the title of his address to the Walkley Media Conference 2010 was "Making Things Public Does Not a Public Make". It is not online.

None of the keynote addresses--or any of the talks-- at the Conference are online. Disappointing. The impression is one of journalists talking to journalists about themselves. This nave-gazing is not a good look, given the criticism of the media during the election campaign.

I understand Rosen's argument but I have a lot of reservations about it. How are journalists supposed to know ''What do the people of Australia want this campaign to be about? What are the issues they want to see the candidates discussing''? It's really inviting journos to take on the tiresome persona of so many politicians, claiming to speak for 'silent majorities' and 'real Australians'.

I prefer a version of responsibility that concentrates on reporting and analysing what politicians actually do and promise. Instead of hyperventilating about the antics of a Mark Latham, let them report on the measures announced by the candidates, compare them to their past track records, investigate their cost effectiveness and their potential consequences, and so on. That is the antithesis of the horse race style so rightly deplored by Rosen but also avoids journos setting themselves up as some kind of arbiters of community values.

in political campaigning, journalists covering the horserace are tools of the campaign tacticians. The print journalists don't even need to look good. (The TV journos do).

Still one fact remains... we (as a country) get the politicians we deserve.

"What do the Australian people want (need?) this election to be about"
The Dick Smith/QA effort, for all its flaws and over simplifications, still represented the first clumsy effort of the campaign to dig down to real issues buried beneath the stratum of BS that has emanated from MSM.
That Smith, a layman on these issues had to be the one to come forward with some attempt at consciousness raising in the absence of something more professional and nuanced, really is an indictment of journalism. The absence of broad sheet journalism previously on the keystone issue of our sustainability, against development and growth at any cost, in a severely challenged wider world, makes Smith's effort, for all its faults, a default winner!
And Burke's evasiveness and Elliot's blowharding made it obvious why..

Watching the Lateline interview with Rosen I had the same reaction as Ken. If journalists have demonstrated anything it's that they're among the last people on earth to ask if you want to know what voters are interested in. I wish we could stop talking about journalism and start talking about reporting. The term 'journalism' just gives them scope to do what they're doing. Call it 'reporting' and the difference between reporting what happened and how the writer felt about it becomes more apparent.

The Dick Smith special was brilliant, and the ratings say that's what people want. Ditto for Gruen Nation. Look at the virul success of the pitch for the Greens and you get an idea of what would make a successful political ad if someone with imagination had a say in how these things are done.

Well it seems the Latham experiment didnt work as the dancing show rated better than 60 mins. More people watched a show about people being pulled over and breath tested too.

Slightly of topic... can anyone else here remember the wave of relief and optimism many felt... when that slimy little grub, JWH, finally got the boot?

I guess I was kidding myself, right? I was just glad to have ANYONE other than the poison dwarf, at the helm.

Howard is back in more ways than one.

His appearance last Sunday marked the shift in opinion polls in my opinion. People who went to Labor last time running from him remembered and started looking for reasons to vote Labor again. Like Broadband.

It strikes me that the news meeja... like the pollies... are treating voters in non-marginal seats as a bunch of mugs.

Typo: You've called Ben Eltham Ben Latham. Just a slight difference between the work of Ben Eltham and Mark Latham ;-)

From Rosen:
"'What do the people of Australia want this campaign to be about?
What are the issues they want to see the candidates discussing?"

Now, correct me if you reckon my perception is off but I think the last election, '07 that is, came much closer to that than this one.
Last time we actually saw polls that rated the issues according to importance by voters. Climate change, water, environment, health, education et al near the top.

Remember the famous Cosby-Textor 'secret' Liberal report that fell off a truck and showeed the Libs behind in just about every major issue?
And the pundits scratching their heads wondering why 'the economy' was a plus for the Libs but they were losing?

OK such issues are still subject to the agenda setting of the media. For example Afghanistan obviously doesn't exist as an issue except when one of 'our brave boys' dies.

I haven't seen such an analysis by Newspoll or the media on the issues this time around.
Maybe an informed public talking about issues is far more dangerous than ear lobes, marital status and what someone said to someone else behind closed doors.
Silence is golden.

thanks. There is indeed a difference between Ben Eltham and Mark Latham. The typo has been corrected.