It should be illegal to publish poll numbers.
Said Matt Taibbi in last month’s Rolling Stone, which is a rant that is very much worth reading. He went on:
Think about it: Banning poll numbers would force the media to actually cover the issues. As it stands now, the horse race is the entire story – I can think of a couple of cable networks that would have to go completely dark tomorrow, as in Dan-Rather-Dead-Fucking-Air dark, if they had to come up with even 10 seconds of news content that wasn’t centered on who was winning. That’s the dirtiest secret we in the media have kept from you over the years: Most of us suck so badly at our jobs, and are so uninterested in delving into any polysyllabic subject, that we would literally have to put down our shovels and go home if we didn’t have poll numbers we can use to terrify our audiences.
The thing is, Taibbi’s point is substantiated quite clearly by findings in the the Pew Research Center’s newly released Winning the Media Campaign 2012, a report on election coverage since the summer.
The report shows what we all sort of knew. That yes, both candidates received more negative coverage than positive. And yes, alternative narratives exist on different channels: MSNBC doesn’t like Romney and FOX doesn’t like Obama. Also, social media users really don’t like Romney.
But the most interesting finding of all:
Throughout the eight-week period studied, a good deal of the difference in treatment of the two contenders is related to who was perceived to be ahead in the race. When horse-race stories-those focused on strategy, tactics and the polls-are taken out of the analysis, and one looks at those framed around the candidates’ policy ideas, biographies and records, the distinctions in the tone of media coverage between the two nominees vanish.
Hat tip to Slate for pointing that out in its review of the report:
As Pew explains, much of that imbalance is the result of the type of horse-race coverage that has come to dominate much of the political news cycle… With those stories removed from the equation, Obama’s positive-negative split was 15 percent to 32 percent, while Romney’s was 14 percent to 32 percent.
The same point, in a graph.
Nieman Lab's Jonathan Stray weighs in, explaining that “horse race” or “political strategy” coverage of politics has been nearly 60-70% of all political journalism over the last several decades. He writes:
Certainly, it’s important to keep track of who might win an election — but 60 or 70 percent? There are several different arguments that this is way too much. First, it’s very insider-y, focusing on how the political game is played rather than what sort of information might help voters choose between candidates. Jay Rosen has called this the cult of the savvy.
Now, here’s an interesting caveat on the subject of polls.
Last week we saw a lot of drama around Nate Silver, the darling of this year’s pollsters after his stunning success predicting outcomes in the 2008 presidential election. He was, in short, accused (by the right) of cheerleading for Obama’s victory, rather than accurately forecasting results, and subsequently defended (by the left). That’s the very short, overly simplified version. It was an interesting debate, which you should read about (see here, here, and here… but mainly here).
The interesting thing is that the discussion highlighted a small point that has very much to do with Taibbi and Stray’s disapproval of horse race coverage. It wasn’t mentioned until PBS Mediashift’s Mark Hannah said it, but the drama over the fact that Silver could have been unfairly favoring Obama is worrisome because polls might actually influence voters. Hannah explains that polls both measure and contribute to a campaign’s momentum:
Canadian political scientist Mark Pickup has argued that voters often take cues about candidates based on media reports of polls. This “bandwagon effect,” by which voters begin to align themselves with the candidate who’s perceived as more popular in the polls, has been documented by NYU professors Vicki Morwitz and Carol Pluzinski. In their study of the 1992 presidential election, Morwitz and Pluzinski demonstrated that political polls change not just voters’ expectations of who will win the election but, in some cases, their preference for a certain candidate.
So, in summary, an overabundance of horse race coverage doesn’t help anyone. It increases negative messaging in the media. It deepens the partisan divide and pollsters like Silver face the brunt of that fighting. It better be right, because it might be influencing voters. And we’re wasting time that could be spent on better journalism. — Jihii
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