Mountain Sun

Mountain Sun

Monday, October 24, 2011

"Horse Race" Media Reporting Arrives at Occupy Wall Street

One way to avoid the laborious task of actual analysis of presidential candidates and their policies is to simply forego the "hard news" and instead focus on the "horse race"--who's ahead and who's behind at any given moment.   I imagine that, compared with hard news pieces with actual content, horse race articles almost write themselves--one simply records the latest polling data, observes that candidate Smith moved up, candidate Jones moved down.  You might add a note on fundraising status, and/or get a couple of soundbite quotes from various competing campaign staffers about strategy or spin, and send it off.   The beauty of such coverage (again, if the object is to avoid generating difficult stuff like policy content and analysis) is that one can essentially write the same article over and over simply by changing the dates and plugging in the latest polling data, rearranging the candidate names to suit the numbers.  Granted, you've also got to get new sound-bites/quotes from the campaign staffs, but you've got all those guys on speed-dial now anyway.

In addition, horse race coverage is popular, and therefore lucrative  for media companies:
Given access to a wide variety of news reports about the presidential campaign in the weeks immediately preceding the 2000 election, we find that voters were drawn to reports on the horserace and strategy. Strategy reports proved far more popular than reports about the issues.
There is a downside however.  Horse race coverage produces voters who are poorly-informed, as shown here in an analysis of how this type of coverage impacted public understanding during last year's healthcare debate:  
While there was certainly a lot of coverage of the bill, the framing and mix of what got covered may have contributed to the public’s confusion on the issue. While the largest component, by far, focused on politics, only a small fraction highlighted the issue at the core of the debate—how the U.S. health care industry actually functions.
Horse race coverage has also been found to boost cynicism, eroding public confidence in government generally: 
Although media organizations stand to profit, the overproduction of horserace news takes a toll on the political commons.  Our results indicate that exposure to this genre of campaign news contributed to increased cynicism about the candidates and the electoral process itself.  
Thanks to CNN (a leading peddler of fluffy journalism, but many other examples are available) we're now seeing a wave of this kind of reporting being applied to the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon.  Here's an example of the horse race approach:
Among those who have an opinion, the public is split on how they feel about Occupy Wall Street. Thirty-two percent of Americans say they have a favorable view of the movement that has spread from Wall Street to Chicago, and that even cropped up at the most recent CNN presidential debate in Las Vegas. Twenty-nine percent of the nation says they have an unfavorable view of Occupy Wall Street.
Similar recent reporting on OWS has focused on whether it is more or less popular than the Tea Party, as if the two were themselves in a race for office. This coverage is particularly misleading in that it attempts to position the two as unrelated opposites. In reality, as Frank Rich recently observed, "The tea-party ... and Occupy Wall Street are two sides of the same coin." 

There are at least two significant dangers to OWS presented by this kind of media coverage. First, and as mentioned above, election-style horse race coverage will not educate and inform the public about what OWS actually is, or what it may become as it evolves. If it evolves. It serves instead as a diversion of public attention, and a hindrance to understanding.

Second, popularity may be largely irrelevant to the success or failure of the movement. The Tea Party has never been very popular with the general public, and yet it has successfully taken over the US House of Representatives (and, by default, the entire legislative branch). There may be a time when OWS becomes significantly less popular than it is now, but such a change need not kill the movement or stop it from reaching what might be very beneficial goals.

There are no doubt many obstacles facing OWS, but one of the most serious of these is likely to be how the movement is covered by the press. Too little coverage doesn't appear to be a problem any longer. But too much of the usual reporting is looking like a more serious issue going forward. Death by journalism. It could happen.

No comments:

Post a Comment