Answer this question: Why was it important to know which presidential candidate was leading in the national polls on October 22? If you properly answered “It wasn’t” then you may move on to the next column. However, if your interest is sparked, continue reading.
The election is over and President Barack Obama was re-elected. But, what good did all the media coverage of the presidential polls, also referred to as the “horse race,” serve to the voting
public? I argue very little.
What really mattered during the election, and should have been covered more extensively, is the candidates’ policy stances. After all, aren’t the candidates’ policies going to affect our lives more than some long-forgotten random poll showing us which candidate was a few points ahead on a random day?
According to the Pew Research Center’s Excellence in Journalism Project, news stories that covered items such as the horse race, fundraising and “what it all meant” was about 44 percent, compared to only 6 percent coverage of the candidates’ public records and 11 percent coverage of their policy positions. So, nearly 10 times as much time was devoted to useless polls as was to the candidates’ actual voting record.
That’s an improvement over the 2008 presidential elections, where
according to Pew the horse race coverage was nearly 62 percent, but there is still room for improvement.
Why don’t reporters deliver more worthy news as opposed to reporting the latest poll numbers?
According to New York Univesity journalism professor Jay Rosen, it comes down to several reasons. Chief among them is a “production of innocence” and a penchant to create entertainment out of our political races.
The creation of entertainment seems like a natural occurrence in our system. We have actors (politicians), drama, heroes (our guys) and villains (theirs). Just take a look at the most pressing post-election issue – the Jan. 1, 2013 expiration of tax cuts and incentives meant to stimulate the weak economy – better known as the “fiscal cliff.”
In this act, “their” guys are speeding towards a cliff in the family car. It’s up to “our” guys to stop them. As we race closer, the clock ticks down with every passing day. What drama.
Rosen also points to the production of innocence. Since reporters
are simply reporting polling numbers, they are able to remain neutral and thus innocent of bias.
This all sounds simple and exciting, but it still doesn’t help voters make informed decisions on big issues (like presidential policy) that will directly affect their lives, something I remember learning in journalism class years ago.
Coverage of the candidates’ policy positions has improved from last cycle, but there is room for improvement. Yes, covering the horse race might seem more exciting and garner more eyeballs, which equals more revenue for news outlets, but holding our potential leaders accountable before they’re elected should be the media’s focus in an American democracy.
Adherence to poll numbers strips power and responsibility from the voters and tilts the balance to those in charge. After all, to quote former Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell, the definition of American democracy was “the control of political affairs by public opinion.”