Nov 1 1998

Horserace Tramples Issues

News Media on the Campaign Trail

This fall, thousands of campaigns have been waged across the country to elect everything from sewer officials to members of Congress. Despite the stakes involved, the country’s news media have appeared only briefly on the sidelines of a few races and ignored most of the rest. As curious as this behavior might seem, it has a long tradition, and parallels other oddities of political reporting.

At the congressional level, news coverage is particularly abysmal. When FAIR surveyed news coverage of the crucial 1994 congressional elections by the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, it found that, on average, each paper devoted only three articles to each race in its central city and suburban congressional districts. When the five “hot” races among the 56 surveyed were excluded, the average number of news articles dropped to a little below one and a half. Twenty-two of the 56 races were not covered by a single full-length news article during the survey period, which ran from Jan. 1, 1994 to Election Day, Nov. 8, 1994.

Having worked in media relations for a variety of campaigns, I have asked reporters why they don’t write more about a particular election. I often hear that they’ve been assigned too many races to do justice to any one. And on several occasions, I have heard both editors and journalists consider a single wrap-up article sufficient coverage for a local election.

Hidden behind these explanations is, of course, the process of prioritization that finds the space and time for endless stories about mating pandas and celebrity divorces. “We don’t cover campaigning by candidates,” I have been told more than once when I have asked news outlets to examine an issue dividing candidates in a race. Implicit in this kind of journalistic thinking is the idea that it’s the job of the candidates to educate the voters and the job of the media to report the results.

The Horse Race

The news media’s tendency to concentrate on “hot” races arises from the horse-race framework used for covering elections. When the news media do cover an electoral contest, they usually focus on the race for the finish line rather than on the issues dividing or uniting the candidates.

In 1994, I was running a congressional campaign in the Riverside-San Bernadino area. Playing out in California’s critical swing area, this race was a nationally watched contest in an election cycle that would dramatically reshape the U.S. Congress and institute a Republican majority.

The candidates disagreed on numerous important issues, including the ban on assault weapons, the Endangered Species Act, the anti-immigrant initiative Prop. 187, the 1994 budget and crime bills, and the desert parks bill.

From Labor Day (the traditional fall campaign kick-off date) to Election Day, the local daily newspaper printed nine full-length news stories covering the race. Only one of those articles was devoted to an examination of the issues. The other eight tracked the horse race: two covered celebrity fundraisers, two covered polls released by the candidates, one covered the impact write-in candidates might have on the election’s outcome, one covered the candidates’ fundraising race, and two covered the candidates’ advertising campaigns. In the week prior to Labor Day, the paper printed three news stories about “accusations” that one of the candidates was gay.

A 1998 study of news stories about Prop. 227, the California initiative that banned bilingual education, found a similar lack of depth. Conducted during the stage-setting months of the campaign by two non-profits, Media Alliance and We Interrupt This Message, the study found that not one of California’s leading newspapers offered a news story examining whether or not bilingual programs worked. On the other hand, the study found numerous stories about the political prospects of the initiative. As a result, campaign claims that bilingual education did not work went largely unchallenged in the mainstream press.

The Money Game

There’s a saying among political consultants: “Money and message is all that counts.” And in fact most elections are determined by the relative sizes of the candidates’ war chests. As a result, journalists who are out to report on a horse race often cover campaign financing as a fundraising contest.

Commonly, a campaign finance story takes the form of a round-up article reporting the fundraising totals for each candidate in each race. The story’s lead often focuses on the candidate with the largest amount of cash on hand. A typical ploy for candidates looking to take advantage of this money myopia is to make a large personal loan to their own campaign shortly before the close of the period covered by the finance report–a loan that will be returned to the candidate after the disclosure period closes. In the interim, of course, the campaign wins the news spotlight for winning the fundraising derby.

What’s typically left out of these stories is the source of all that money–sometimes totaling over $5 million in a hot congressional race–and the influence that the money can wield on the candidates. While there is hardly ever an explicit quid pro quo, candidates who are successful at raising large amounts of cash naturally tend to have strong sympathetic ties to wealthy communities: corporations, doctors, lawyers, real estate agents, etc. Those ties are usually accompanied by parallel political interests: If your golfing friends are real estate agents, you often share their view on real estate tax policies.

A news story may note PAC contributions and their obvious political significance, but most candidates get the majority of their money from individuals (or corporations in non-federal races).

Even if one or two large donors are cited, data from campaign finance reports is rarely aggregated, investigated and analyzed. For instance, the insurance industry’s influence on a candidate may not be apparent until you go through a campaign finance report and total up all the individual contributions from insurance agents and their families. Often tracking these donations means knowing the identities of the players in an industry in order to match them against the names on a campaign finance report. All of this means devoting more resources to the story.

Lies, Damned Lies and Polls

Poll stories may be even less helpful to the average reader than the typical campaign finance story. Polling work requires complex statistical analysis, and modern pollsters often have degrees in mathematics. But news coverage of political polls rarely asks or answers key questions needed to understand a poll, for example: What exactly did the poll taker tell the voter before asking the questions? Which voters were polled and why? Are there factors that might bring voters who weren’t surveyed to the polls in unusual numbers?

At the congressional level, most polls are not conducted by news outlets but by the candidates themselves. Candidates poll voters in order to find out where they are in the horse race and to find out what messages will appeal to the voters, but the most common reason for releasing polling data is to win support and raise money. Candidates who can position themselves in the public eye as likely winners will be able to raise that much more money.

A poll analysis will often run more than 10 pages, accompanied by a stack of tables one to three inches thick. There can be upwards of 50 questions on a poll, with respondent variables including age, sex, voter registration, frequency of voting, location and other factors.

What usually gets released to the public—via reporters—is a one-page memo prepared by the pollster giving selected numerical results and offering a carefully couched argument presenting the most positive interpretation that can be plausibly offered. Any poll data that won’t help the candidate build momentum is treated as confidential strategic information.

Since handicapping a horse race requires a tip sheet, the news media focus a great deal of attention on polls, despite their low information value. Poll stories serve the dual needs of reporters and campaign managers and, as a result, often dominate coverage of local campaigns.

The close relations that journalists have with established politicians also explains in part their use of the horse-race context. Modern-day campaign managers weigh issues and campaign contributions almost solely in terms of their value in electing candidates. These institutional values are often adopted by journalists who in turn apply them to decisions on news reporting.

End Game

In a democracy, an election presents a critical opportunity to examine issues and debate ideas. As an institution, the news media hold the ground for hosting that discussion. The news media can improve election coverage by moving away from a horse-race framework, wherein the hot derbies dominate the discussion, and placing elections in an issues-based context. The ideas that a candidate brings to an election are important, regardless of the candidate’s prospects at the polls.

The media’s disdain for campaign issues mirrors the apolitical popular culture of the United States. As news outlets operate more like entertainment centers, substance goes out the window in the chase for ratings. The credibility of a news outlet depends upon its reputation as a comprehensive, balanced and accurate source of news. As news outlets slowly trade away their reputations in the search for ratings and readers, they make themselves all the more vulnerable to challenge.

Hunter Cutting, associate director of We Interrupt This Message, is a veteran campaign manager and a long-time media strategist for public interest organizations.