Jay Rosen in Oz: Horse-Race Journalism an “International Phenom”

Don’t tell us who’s going to win our vote, help us decide whom to vote for

Last week I wrote about the political differences between Australia and the U.S.; specifically, the perils of drawing any too neat comparisons between the political characters of the nations as each thrashes its way through its own unique electoral season.

This week, I’m writing about some similarities between Australia and the U.S. While the issues, personalities, and political systems driving each nation’s election may be different, the reporters covering them on both sides of the Pacific can take remarkably similar, predictable, depressing, approaches. So-called “horse-race” reporting—sound bite-driven, he-said-she-said, stat-obsessed, poll-heavy, strategy-focused—is a major draw whichever end of the equator you’re on.

The horse-race comparison was made by NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, in Australia this week for the final days of the country’s prime ministerial election. Rosen, scathing as ever about the state of modern electoral coverage, has been on TV, behind podiums, and in meeting rooms discussing “horse-race journalism,” which he defined in an interview on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) Lateline as “a reusable model for how to do campaign coverage in which you focus on who’s going to win rather than what the country needs to settle by electing a prime minister.”

On a Gchat interview with me from Melbourne, Rosen elaborated on his thoughts about the similarities between the Australian and U.S. political media. “What struck me was not that the coverage of the election is exactly the same in some global sense; for example, I don’t know any programs in the U.S. that would do as careful a job in summing up the campaign as Four Corners [another ABC program] did last night. However, what struck me is that when Australian journalists do the savvy, they do it exactly like American journalists do. The tonal match is perfect.”

A quick survey of political coverage in the nation’s most respected broadsheets—The Age in Melbourne, The Sydney Morning Herald, and Murdoch’s national daily, The Australian—shows that while there is some pointed writing on the issues, the horse-race certainly isn’t limited to Sunday mornings. One of my favorite bits from today’s Australian is this, an issue-free nutgraf from a report on a prime ministerial town hall debate that manages to touch on political theatre, polling, press coverage, and positioning in just two sentences.

Last night’s town hall-style forum at the Broncos Leagues Club represented the leaders’ final opportunity for extended national television coverage. But neither Ms Gillard nor Tony Abbott could land a knock-out blow, although a straw poll of the audience gave it narrowly to the Prime Minister.

That one graf, which has a more than familiar ring to those of us wading through the midterm coverage, pretty much gives you the gist of the piece.

Talking about the horse-race in Sydney and Melbourne, and witnessing it in action in the media’s coverage of the contest between Prime Minister Julia Gillard and challenger Tony Abbott, inspired Rosen to revisit his proposal for a horse-race alternative, his Citizen’s Agenda approach to campaign coverage. He suggests—with ten practical steps—that outlets first survey their readers/viewers/listeners to find out the ten issues they are most concerned about, hone the list, publish it, and use it to direct their campaign coverage. Don’t neglect the polls, just remember to serve the readers first; give weight to the issues, not to the standings. Ask questions the public wants to hear answered.

For Rosen, it’s a power play the media needs to make to serve its audiences. “The thing about the Citizen’s Agenda that I think some people don’t get,” he said, “is that it’s not a high-minded device to get more ‘eat your vegetables’ news into the mix. It’s a power move.” He says that by stepping off the bus or plane, and by forcing candidates to engage with the issues most important to citizens, you wrest back power from the campaign apparatuses that seek to drive the narrative. It has been done before, most notably by The Charlotte Observer under editor Richard Oppel in the early 1990s. Rosen quotes Oppel in his book, What Are Journalists For?:

Voters were intensely interested in the environment…. So our reporters went out to senatorial candidates and said, “here are the voters’ questions.” Terry Sanford, the incumbent senator, called me up from Washington and said, “Rich, I have these questions from your reporter and I’m not going to answer them because we are not going to talk about the environment until after the general election.” This was the primary. I said, “Well, the voters want to know about the environment now, Terry.” He said, “Well, that’s not the way I have my campaign structured.” I said, “Fine, I will run the questions and leave a space under it for you to answer. If you choose not to, we will just say ‘would not respond’ or we will leave it blank.” We ended the conversation. In about ten days he sent the answers down.

That’s a tasty anecdote. One for the team! And yet the Citizen’s Agenda proposal would require a massive readjustment of resources and a change in direction at a time when the few media organizations that are thriving are very much in the horse-race mode. Sadly, it’s an ideal more than a forthcoming reality.

“Will journalists agree to do it?” Rosen asks. “That’s a different story.” He suggests that the horse-race is ingrained for a number of reasons—among them the journalist’s fear of leaving the pack, of doing something different. “But the biggest advantage of horse-race journalism is that it permits reporters and pundits to ‘play up their detachment,’” Rosen has written. “Focusing on the race advertises the political innocence of the press because ‘who’s gonna win?’ is not an ideological question. By asking it you reaffirm that yours is not an ideological profession.” In our chat he added, “Deep down, the refusal to give up the horse race is a refusal to give up THAT. And you can see how difficult a leap it is. But those who make the leap would, I think, find they had more power, not less.”

One thing I think might be missing, or lacking emphasis, in Rosen’s analysis of the horse-race, and in his proposed alternative, is the audience. Does it actually want to know about the issues, or is it happy with its trackside view? It seems audiences are drawn to the polls, the ups-and-downs, the sound bites, the strategies, the savvy, fluffy, airy, meaningless analysis, just as gamblers are drawn to the horse track. I am as guilty as anyone. Few pieces have been as purely focused on the political and strategic as today’s New York Times cover story on Sharron Angle, but I had a good time reading it this morning. With Morning Joe playing in the background. And, as a voting Australian, I confess to checking in every few days to see who is “leading” the election down there.

Which is not to say we shouldn’t move away from this kind of thing. We should. At least, we should move toward a greater emphasis on issues coverage. And the Citizen’s Agenda is a nice practical model for that. It might not be built just to put more vegetables in our diet, but we could still use the vegetables. Making the move, though, would require some very brave souls. On both sides of the equator.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.