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US election: horse-race reporting is media gold but democratic poison

First Lady Melania Trump, US President Donald J. Trump, Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden, and his wife Jill Biden after the first presidential debate.
Runners and riders? Forget the issues, it’s all about the personalities. EPA-EFE/Morry Gash / POOL

The 2020 US presidential election campaign is moving quickly and the news media are valiantly struggling to keep abreast of what’s happening. Day in, day out there’s a relentless source of material to report. It’s hard enough for journalists, let alone the people they are striving to keep informed ahead of polling day on November 3.

So, just in the past week, there were reports that the president, Donald Trump, has been hinting that he may not acquiesce to a smooth transition of power if he loses the vote. Then came allegations about Trump’s tax avoidance, followed by his claims that Joe Biden was taking performance-enhancing substances ahead of the first televised debate.

And what a debate it was, anarchic and devoid of serious discussion. This was followed by the news that the president and first lady had tested positive for COVID-19 and that – on debate night – their wider family refused to wear face masks when requested to do so.

Then, of course, we’ve had the saga of Trump being hospitalised, which again has been fraught with controversy. Conspiracy theorists, of which there appears to be an ever-growing number, are even suggesting it has all been a ploy to regenerate a flagging campaign.

Where are the issues?

A focus on personalities, campaign events, mishaps and opinion polls and are highly newsworthy – but meaningful coverage of key issues, and the policies being developed by the candidates is marginalised.

Supporters of Joe Biden and Donald Trump both carrying placards and gesturing at each other.
Focusing on candidates rather than policies has polarised political debate. EPA-EFE/Cristobal Herrera

For anyone who has analysed the coverage of the past few elections, this is unsurprising. The book Reporting Elections: Rethinking the Logic of Campaign Coverage, which I co-authored in 2018 with Stephen Cushion of Cardiff University, quotes data collected by US news analyst Andrew Tyndall during the 2016 US campaign showing that two weeks before polling day, issue coverage had been “virtually non-existent” on the three main TV news networks CBS, NBC and ABC.

Indeed, their combined coverage of issues amounted to just 32 minutes and seemingly battled in vain with the non-policy focus on aspects such as Hillary Clinton’s emails and Donald Trump’s personal life.

Intuitively – particularly in the middle of a global news story such as COVID-19 – issue coverage in 2020 is likely to be shallower still. But while the policy versus process news imbalance is more extreme in the US, it is a wider phenomenon across most democracies.

While researching Reporting Elections, we found that TV viewers are likely to see more policy coverage in countries with public service broadcasters. But even then, the overwhelming conclusion from looking at dozens of studies examining the nature of election coverage is that “who is going to win?” is a more compelling question than “what will they actually do when they win?”

Who’s up, who’s down?

There are some logical reasons for the emphasis on process over policy. First, as political commentator Isabel Oakeshott indicates, political news has some synergy with news about sport – surely a national obsession everywhere – and its fascination with “who’s up, who’s down, who’s on the benches” and “who’s in trouble for a foul”.

Next, while there are no such regulatory requirements in the US mandating that broadcast journalists must strive for impartiality – as in the UK – reporting opinion poll data might be a safer option than dissecting policy proposals that might leave broadcasters open to accusations that they’ve been too hard on one party, or too soft on another.

Further, more trivial or salacious campaign details feed contemporary 24/7 news cycles, and one perception is that they trigger stories and angles without the need for the deep, forensic unpicking of any policy proposals.

But this isn’t simply about any journalistic failure. Reporting Elections reveals frustrations felt by TV editors and reporters that politicians often don’t wish to engage with policy and are invariably happier talking about, for example, opinion polls – switching seamlessly between: “look how well we’re doing” if they are winning, and: “these polls don’t mean anything” if they are losing. Meanwhile, the awkward questions about policy detail are avoided.

To emphasise this point, at one stage in the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump’s campaign identified seven policy proposals taking up around 9,000 words on his website. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton’s website discussed over seven times as many issues and spent more than 12 times as many words describing them. But across the three main US networks, Trump still attracted twice the volume of coverage that Clinton did.

Personality politics

This might be at least partly explained by the reality that some candidates – by which in this case we mean Trump rather than Joe Biden – are fundamentally newsworthy. Even when his actual activities and controversies are in recess, the president creates his own virtual news agenda via Twitter.

Two middle aged men in suits posing together.
Birds of a feather? Populist politicians often rely on personality rather than policies. EPA-EFE/Peter Nicholls / POOL

The British prime minister, Boris Johnson, might be said to sometimes enjoy a similar – some would say accident-prone – existence. But both were the winners of their most recent electoral contests. In the 2014 European elections in the UK, the similarly non-conventional and controversial Nigel Farage – and thus the things he wanted to talk about – dominated TV coverage before his party did the same at the polls.

So, if politicians, editors and journalists prefer coverage about polls, gaffes, controversies and incidents, coverage of policy issues inevitably makes way. Such coverage might even help the politicians it relates to. But what interests the public is not necessarily in the public interest – and election coverage might not be helping citizens make sense of the policies that will affect their lives after polling day.

The authors of this article discuss this and other US election issues in a weekly podcast which can be found here (Apple) or here (Spotify).

Read more: After a brutal campaign, a moment of transcendence for Hillary Clinton

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