Election 2013 media panel

Election reporting as horse race coverage contributes to voter disenchantment

I don’t know about you, but almost a week out from the election, I’ve become quite bored with it all.

It had all begun promisingly, with a newly reinstated Prime Minister polling surprisingly well among the electorate in July and the prospect of a tight contest and - hopefully - a robust battle of ideas.

Then, when the election campaign started in earnest, the Opposition’s lead began to widen, to the stage where it now looks like Tony Abbott may lead a government with a 20 seat majority.

The debates have been uninspiring, with neither of the two main candidates willing to risk something, perhaps partly because in a highly mediatized political environment it’s best not to put anyone offside.

The media coverage has - with some exceptions - been quite predictable, with its extensive coverage of polls, polls, and - yes, a few more polls. A new one is born every minute, or so it seems. The problem is, they all point to a very similar result, so there’s not really much new to add.

Instead, a lot of focus has been on highly sensationalised issues, be it the early gaffes of Jaymes Diaz or Stephanie Banister, or the more recent accusations over the Prime Minister’s rudeness. Of course, every interaction Tony Abbott has with the fairer sex is highly scrutinised - and he hasn’t exactly been helping himself there much.

To top it all off, some of our mainstream media organisations have managed to make themselves part of the coverage. Starting with the Daily Telegraph’s front page on the first day of the campaign, News Corp Australia has been one of the key talking points almost daily.

This focus on horse-race coverage and ‘hoopla’ as the Americans call it, has been a mainstay of media coverage for quite some time, especially in the US, but it has also become common in the Australian context.

In the lead-up to last year’s US elections, Reuters journalist Jack Shafer argued election reporting was identical to sports writing: “Determine who is ahead and who is behind; get inside the heads of the participants; decode the relevant strategies and tactics; and find a way to convert reader interest into sustainable enthusiasm.”

This process, many argue, is not a positive development for democracy, as it dumbs down, leads to black and white coverage, and hides many critical ‘real’ issues.

Sports journalism struggles to hold onto its viewers when reporting one-sided contests. Similarly, it seems, election coverage as sports journalism can contribute to voter disenchantment, especially when one party has a clear lead.

Having become so enveloped by our media’s coverage of the election as sport, it feels a bit like I’m watching a game of football where one team is leading by four goals to nil, ten minutes from time.

Or, in keeping with the equine metaphor, a race where one horse is leading by five lengths, 50 metres from the finish. You know who is going to win, a foregone conclusion, so why bother watching?

Perhaps the only thing keeping the contest alive at this stage is that sometimes, somewhere, someone pulls a Steven Bradbury.