[Clickworthy] Horseraces and tail wagging: How do you like your election coverage?

The Fourth Estate improved in its role as informer and vetter in the 2012 Republican primary, but it continued to bog itself down in political minutia and reflection of public sentiment, according to a report released Monday by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The study found that 64% of primary coverage was devoted to what the researchers deemed “strategy,” a term inclusive of public opinion polls, momentum, advertising, and fundraising – the so-called “horserace” aspect of an election. The remaining coverage was split among the candidates’ personal background (12%), position on domestic issues (9%), existing public record (6%), position on foreign issues (1%), and other uncategorized topics (6%).

It may seem a disservice that so little of the newshole was devoted to informing the electorate about the candidates, but the PEJ was quick to point out what an improvement it was over 2008. The 28% of “vetting” coverage was roughly double the amount candidates received in the 2008 Republican (11%) and Democratic (15%) primaries.

The variations of these primaries is worth considering. The 2008 Republican primary was much different than 2012. John McCain cemented his nomination on Super Tuesday, though one could argue it came even sooner than that. Every legitimate candidate but one (Mike Huckabee) had dropped out by early February. Meanwhile, the 2008 Democratic primary carried on even longer than this year’s GOP battle – a two-person contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama that led most of us to learn for the first time what “superdelegates” were. The validity of coverage comparisons between the two primary years might indeed be acceptable then, considering the 2012 Republican primary would fit snugly between the two extremes of 2008.

The Pew study argued that while the 2012 battle may have lasted until mid-April, media coverage established the endpoint on February 29 – a day, ironically enough, that only occurs in an American presidential election year. Or, more relevantly, the day after Mitt Romney won Arizona and his native state of Michigan – a must-win for his blue-collar challenger, Rick Santorum.

Coverage shifted after Michigan, both in terms of tone and amount. Romney’s favorable coverage reached a peak that he has yet to recapture, and though Newt Gingrich saw a slight rebound in total coverage in the week that followed, a general and precipitous decline in coverage of Romney’s challengers began in earnest and continued until Santorum dropped out and Gingrich should have.

It’s often said that media steers public opinion. Indeed, the amount of coverage given to particular facets of a story can increase the likelihood that we base our evaluations of the topic on the specific criteria used in media reports – an agenda-setting function of the press. For instance, if media coverage of the Republican primary places a dominant focus on candidate electability, it may, in fact, lead a greater number of voters to place importance on that particular criterion. A focus on foreign policy might cue voters to weigh their decisions more toward that area, potentially favoring a different candidate.

Agenda-setting, as we typically see it, is part of a minimal effects theory of mass communication. Yes, it may be possible for media, through the selection of story elements, to impact the criteria we consider important in evaluating an event. I would argue that in most cases (discounting overtly partisan media) these elements are chosen based upon a good-faith consideration of importance by editors and gatekeepers. While media may play a role in influencing what we think about, they find far less success in persuading us what to think about what we think about. (If that word play didn’t do it, the idea is that media present the criteria, but we make our own judgments on their merit.)

But this Pew study reveals a continuation of a rather harmless press (or lackadaisical, depending on your impression of the press and its role). Breathless analysis of the horserace – of opinion polls and exit polls and margins of error – doesn’t introduce new information to the fray. By definition, it is only telling us what we already think. The press is not influencing public opinion; it is reflecting it. The tail is not wagging the dog; the dog is wagging the tail! Conspiracists take note.

I would argue this reflectivity is common. While the media’s place in democracy may be to challenge us with new information – to make us think about things we haven’t thought about before – it is far easier (and more profitable) to stick to telling us a few comfortable narratives. Why pour over Candidate A’s foreign trade philosophy? Why press Candidate B on diplomacy? Instead, let’s show a clip from a stump speech, a chart of some people who have already made up their minds, and some sound-on-tape from an Average Joe like you, just for good measure. The horserace narrative is easy to tell and easy to yell (if that’s your news format of choice). That vetting coverage has increased is welcome news, but the sideshow is still the main event. Don’t expect that contradiction to change as we push toward November.

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