Horse race journalism (and why I read it)

I’ve had a draft of this post sitting in my intray for a while now. It started because I wanted to mention, or at least link to, an article over at The Atlantic, which came out in 2011. I don’t understand politics or media nearly as well as I’d like to; but I’ve kept mulling it over. The post below is my attempt to hash through various points on media, and how it relates to politics. It’s not definitive, or necessarily correct; but it’s my attempt to think through some issues I think are both interesting and important. It’s in three broad sections; the original article I came across, the speech that article drew from, and my own subsequent thoughts on the topic.

The article

The article at The Atlantic mentions two key ideas that I think are really interesting, and perhaps ones that aren’t often articulated clearly, let alone consistently kept in mind when processing media commentary on politics – and I think they’re both important.

  • A significant portion of commentary on government focuses on the politics, and the process. That is, on how the game is being played (I’m thinking of this conversation from Game of Thrones, about the 2 minute mark).
  • That can distract from important issues – like how the outcome of the political game actually plays out, and how it changes outcomes for average people.

The upshot of this is that we can see positive coverage of bad policy, if it’s played-well – delivered well, ‘sold’ well, packaged with good talking points. Which I think is a bad outcome for people who consume that media and commentary, and who may ultimately vote or make other decisions based on it.

The speech

The article in the Atlantic is turn based on a 2011 speech, by Jay Rosen. Early on, Rosen summarises one of his key points:

Things are out of alignment. Journalists are identifying with the wrong people. Therefore the kind of work they are doing is not as useful as we need it to be.

The crux of this issue is the first point above; that the political coverage is focusing on the game, the tactics of how politics and government work. But Rosen is making a slightly different point; that as well as focusing on this aspect, the framework is one where journalists treat politics as an insiders’ game, one where complex machinations play out behind closed doors–on the inside– and that it’s their job to uncover those machinations, by gaining access to those ‘insiders’. And if journalists are doing this, they are effectively telling their audience ‘here is how party A, B or C is trying to control media coverage/influence the discussion/influence you’.

The second point Rosen makes is that as part of this framework, journalists start to value what he calls ‘saviness’ – as Rosen puts it:

Savviness is that quality of being shrewd, practical, hyper-informed, perceptive, ironic, “with it,” and unsentimental in all things political. And what is the truest mark of savviness? Winning, of course! Or knowing who the winners are.

Rosen then ties this point back to his first one. If the media are attempting to gain access to an inner sanctum where the ‘insiders’ are, and value in reporting ‘saviness’, that ability to see through it, then, Rosen argues, viewers/readers/consumers of media are positioned as two contradictory things: we’re invited to be one of the savvy insiders’; but at the same time, almost by definition, if you and I are getting our understanding of the political process and the machinations from a newspaper or some form of public media, then we’re members of the public, not members of the ‘savvy insiders’ group.

I found Rosen’s third point, on the production of innocence, less clear than his earlier two. Essentially, I think, he’s arguing that a) the media want or need to be seen as neutral, and that b) that desire to be seen as neutral makes particular forms of journalism, such as false-equivalence/’he-said–she said’ journalism (for more on that see James Fallows) or horse race journalism attractive (the latter because it enables a focus on the outcomes of the political game (see point 2), rather than the value outcomes). But, Rosen argues, journalists have (an essential) role to play as interpreters and commentators – in saying ‘this is not true’, or ‘this is a bad outcome’; and that both of the forms above fail to live up to that standard.

Rosen then argues that the current focus of media leaves them vulnerable to what he calls ‘verification in reverse’; which, if I’m reading him correctly, is a strategy of challenging established facts to generate a political controversy, and then using that political controversy to crowd out the underlying facts from media coverage.

Finally, he outlines a different system, a ‘thought experiment’ of how media might work – I’ll leave you to read it if you’re interested, but essentially it centres on a willingness by journalists to sift through and identify what the key underlying facts are, where there’s still legitimate disagreement, and then to sift out the attempts at manipulation of the media, and not allowing the focus on insider machinations to crowd out the important aspects of the story.

What I think

As I’ve said, media and politics are complex topics, ones I’m still very much learning about. I liked both the article and Rosen’s speech; partially because I think they help draw out some useful points, particularly in highlighting that a media focus on the tactics of politics, the game of how it’s played, isn’t essential or necessarily helpful.

Having said which, I think there’s more to the story. One point is that as a consumer of media, someone who reads news articles quite regularly, and occasionally watches TV coverage – it can be really helpful to have someone analysing, explaining and critiquing the nexus between political machinations and media coverage. That might be giving suggestions of where there’s bias, or why a particular piece of coverage isn’t the full story. That, in turn, helps me make decisions about which newspapers I’ll read, or whose coverage I’ll trust on a particular issue.

That isn’t to say that it justifies a complete focus purely on the insiders’ games, to the exclusion of all else. But there is some room for coverage of that kind.

But I think I agree with Rosen’s point or recommendation; which is that the kind of coverage I think is valuable and important is the kind of reporting that enables us to understand not only the insiders’ game, but also the outcomes for real people. If a particular politician has done a particularly good job in communicating a policy, or if a political organisation has executed a strategy well to achieve a particular outcome, what does that mean for us? What is the policy change that may ultimately result from that, and who will be affected, and how?

Which brings me to my final point. Rosen notes Neil Postman’s work in his speech, and Neil Postman’s Amusing ourselves to death is (I hope) a significant influence in how I think about media. And a key part of Postman’s argument was that we need to think about the economic structures; who’s paying for what, and why are people incentivised to do the things they do? In this case, who buys media? And how is that incentivising reporters?

The answer, sadly is us; it’s the human beings that we are, buying newspapers, subscribing online, watching TV. Of course, with that, is the knowledge that most media is heavily dependent on advertising; if I can paraphrase a vague memory of Postman, television is advertisements with pieces of media dangled to attract viewers in between. So of course advertisers, and people who own, control or otherwise influence media organisations shape coverage. But ultimately, I suspect that if all of us were paying top-dollar for in-depth NATSEM reports, there’d be many more of them published, and you could see advertisements in between long lectures on the complexities of the interaction between particular aspects of the tax system.

But the truth is after a long day I’m tired; and I like a simple story. And I think it’s perhaps the case for a reasonable number of people that they already have opinions about what’s good and bad policy – what we don’t know is how a particular piece of political story and theatre may play out. So we’re back to one of Rosen’s early points, which is that in some ways, politics as insider drama is also politics as entertainment, and coverage of that can be a low-cost alternative to some other forms:

From a TV programmer’s point of view the advantage of politics-as-entertainment is that the main characters, the politicians themselves, work for free! The media doesn’t have to pay them because taxpayers do. The sets are provided by the government, the plots by the party leaders, back benchers and spin doctors. Politics as problem-solving or consensus-building would be more expensive to cover. Politics as entertainment is simply a low cost alternative.

I don’t know that I really have a conclusion on all of this; just that I think these are interesting questions that are worth thinking about, and ones that I don’t feel I fully understand yet.

Postscript

For a slightly different discussion of the same ideas, see this piece by James Fallows (circa 1996). Interestingly, he also uses the term ‘sideshow’ (a la Lindsay Tanner; see the final para) in his critique of problems in the media.

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3 thoughts on “Horse race journalism (and why I read it)

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