Reporting Politicking: Horse-Race Coverage of Politics

29 Jun

The phrase horse race journalism is often used to describe how the media covers the elections. But it can also be used to describe how it covers issues. And then perhaps ‘horse race’ is a misnomer. A more appropriate label would be ‘football game’ style of coverage, given that it is heavy on analysis of strategy.

Reporting today is focused on analyzing the strategy of teams (parties), which are understood chiefly through its celebrity players (political leaders), engaged in a highly complex game. News coverage on domestic politics today involves extensive coverage of the process of how decisions are made (and not made), the innumerable stories on the power dynamics between the Legislative branch and the Executive, or between the leaders of the parties, while little attention is paid to chart the impact of the policies. Whereas we see extensive coverage and analysis of alleged ‘missteps’, we hear little about the substantive topic of interest – issues at the heart of it.

There is now a virtual army of pundits, each appropriately fitted with meager intellect, large ego, and partisan affiliation, that dissects every political move and its impact on the public perception of a particular leader or of political parties. Be it the reporting about the ‘immigration bill’ or “Iraq’, there is now an abundance of reports that talk about ‘Bush’s loss’ or ‘Rove strategies’ or the ‘lame duck president’. Indeed strategy is an intrinsic part of politics and dictates what is possible and what isn’t, but reporting on strategic aspects shouldn’t come at the expense of reporting on issues.


Driven partially by celebrity style coverage that puts individuals at the center rather than issues, serious reporters have mistakenly taken on the view that it is important to devote substantial energy on reporting on PR and strategy aspect of how decisions are made and how they will influence some person or organization.

Part of this style of reporting has to do with how news organization chooses to organize and how they prioritize. There is a ‘White House,’ and there are generally a few reporting from the bowels of Congress, but aside from a regular crime beat, there are few reporters assigned to analyzing issues. The analysis is either left to polemicists or hacks.

Certainly, a substantial part of the reason has to do with reporters who haven’t thought through what is worth reporting what isn’t. There is this bizarre idea that news is current, that if the news is a day old, then it is stale and unworthy. What the heck is the utility of this news either way for poorly informed citizens of a democracy? I understand why news about the weather has to be reasonably fresh, and why some business news has to be fresh, but why does anything else have to be delivered within five seconds of it happening? This harks back to the comments I have made about the marginal (more likely no) utility of breaking news. The point though is broader – lack of a theory of news – aside from race to earn the most money – has seriously compromised not only the overall coverage, which is more Paris Hilton than substantive news topics, but also the coverage that is given to ‘serious’ topics.