Personality before Policy

Elections and Horse Race Journalism

by Erin Maclean

Disaffection with politics has been growing in Australia (and beyond) for some time, it seems disaffection with those who bring us the news is also on the rise.

According to New York Magazine, journalists are not doing themselves any favours — clickbait, sensationalism and a lack of depth plague general news coverage and have, particularly in recent years, seeped into political reportage.

In the recent Australian federal election, news media were criticised for focusing on the personalities of politicians, rather than their policies. Indeed, Opposition leader Bill Shorten urged voters to look beyond the party leaders to elect representatives with the right vision for Australia.

Policy advisor Russell Marks argues this did not happen, as mainstream media scarcely provided the substantive policy analysis required for voters to decide for themselves.

Instead, reports followed the turbulence of the polls to the point of whiplash, even when they failed to capture voters’ sentiments. This is not unique to the Australian election, however, as similar concerns have arisen in the United States, United Kingdom and even the Philippines for decades.

Horse race journalism

This type of coverage is aptly called horse race journalism for the way it favours accounts of ‘the race’, winners and losers, often to the detriment of candidates and voters alike. For Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, the news is predisposed to reporting on those who are ahead, catching up, behind or losing ground.

These reports fulfil the basic tenets of newsworthiness, evoking a sense of competition and conflict. They are defended as the epitome of objective journalism, even though they indicate a lack of scrutiny that is itself a type of bias and are based on the perception of win or loss — rather than the reality.

The amount of coverage and its tone is based on this perception, which affects how candidates are represented and, potentially, may help or hurt their chances at success.

In this year’s American presidential nominations, Donald Trump’s novelty and his story of gaining ground was so popular he attracted more news coverage than any other candidate. For those who attribute Trump’s success to his ability to attract media attention, this is a common criticism of news media.

Photo: Gage Skidmore, CC BY SA 2.0

But Hillary Clinton, who did worse than expected in the early caucuses, overshadowed her Democratic rival with overwhelmingly negative coverage. Competitor Bernie Sanders performed surprisingly well in the votes, he received more positive than negative coverage — but less coverage overall, arguably because he was considered unelectable in the face of Clinton as the favourite.

In Australian politics, this trend explains the emphasis on the three major parties that, in the eyes of journalists, have the most to win or lose come polling day.

But this coverage was hardly equal or equitable. It seems the Australian Labor Party struggled with attracting the right media attention, as they had to stand up to incumbents and overcome Bill Shorten’s reputation as being unelectable — referred to explicitly by The Australian, Courier-Mail, The Monthly, Sydney Morning Herald and Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

The effects

Horse race journalism apportions coverage before voters understand which candidates best reflect their views and promotes the development of a political common sense that may be contrary to the evidence.

While the Coalition only narrowly held onto its position in government in the federal election, Marks argues if the media had challenged the incumbents on their record, it would have been a landslide victory against the Coalition. This is speculation, but not hard to imagine when Marks asserts the Coalition “woefully” failed to achieve its own indicators of economic success — suggesting Labor’s 2007–2013 government was more economically productive than the Coalition’s latest term.

But Australians supposedly elect the government they think they deserve.

Even if the Coalition failed economically, the perception is they are better economic managers than Labor or any alternative parties. Even if the Coalition ousted its first-term prime minister like Labor, the perception is the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years were chaos whereas the Coalition offered stability.

To put it simply, horse race journalism loses the nuance and complexity of politics to become a contest of personalities and image management. Only about 11 per cent of the articles analysed by the Shorenstein Center was on actual issues and policy concerns.

This does not necessarily decide elections, but these perceptions are shaped early — whoever wins or loses at the beginning is likely to gain or lose momentum from the media’s coverage. For minor parties or supposedly unelectable candidates, this means they may never get the opportunity effectively communicate their policy platform to the masses.

Why do journalists do it?

For one, horse race journalism is easier, especially given the burden of the 24/7 news cycle. The commercial realities of modern journalism mean that many journalists do not have the time or resources to deliver substantive analysis and report on complex concerns.

Government funding cuts to the ABC — and the axing of ABC Fact Check — mean even it is pressed to repeat politicians’ slogans and report on polls, rather than questioning, challenging or checking them.

It may sound grim, but this reimagining of complex and often drawn-out political campaigns as a sporting event does have a practical purpose. Depth is lost, but it makes politics more palatable for voters.

But the culture of personality politics seems inequitable and unsustainable. Though it is being called out by politicians, by voters and even by other news media, a cultural shift will be slow. Of course, sometimes politics can be a horse race, but certainly not all the time.



Erin is a freelance journalist and PhD student at Griffith University.

Erin specialises in news media depictions of popular culture, but is particularly interested in the way media framing affects public perception and politics.

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