Game change

The media’s treatment of political campaigns as a spectator sport discourages voter participation.

By Ajay Ravichandran

Anyone who has followed the media coverage of the seemingly endless race for the Republican presidential nomination has probably noticed that most campaign reporting is guided by a desire to answer the following question: Who will the party’s eventual nominee be? Apart from actual primary results, the stories that tend to be featured most prominently are discussions of new polling data and their implications for the next election’s outcome. Speeches announcing new policy proposals generally get much less attention, and even when they are discussed, the focus is often on how they will affect a candidate’s chances. Interviews with the contenders spend nearly as much time on questions about how their recent statements will affect their prospects for victory as on those statements’ substance.

This approach to campaign reporting is certainly not a unique feature of the present race; virtually every presidential contest is covered in the same way. Indeed, you might now be wondering why I’ve devoted so much attention to a fairly banal point. Isn’t “who’s going to win?” the most obvious question to ask about any competition, whether that competition is a political campaign, a sporting event, or an awards ceremony?

However, I think that the pervasiveness of this approach to campaign coverage blinds us to just how strange it actually is. Reporting on sports or the Oscars and Grammys should focus primarily on predicting winners because it addresses an audience of pure spectators, who have no control over the outcomes of these competitions and who follow them mainly in order to find out what will happen. But political coverage, at least in a democracy, is consumed by the ordinary voters who will ultimately determine which candidate is elected. One would therefore expect political reporters to accordingly devote most of their energy to giving the rest of us the information we need to choose wisely by presenting the best available evidence on how voting a given politician to the presidency will impact our lives. It’s rather bizarre that reporters instead spend most of their time informing us about how we are likely to decide.

But the standard approach to campaign reporting is not just an odd curiosity; it is probably harmful as well. One obvious cost of this misguided focus is the time wasted on giving voters useless information, which could instead be spent covering candidates’ platforms and records. Furthermore, when most reporters approach politics as just another competitive game, the voters who follow their coverage will likely come to view politics in the same manner and consequently attach little importance to political participation. The failure of this prevailing style of political journalism to illuminate the myriad ways in which the political process affects our interests and how we can influence that process likely drives many ordinary Americans away from politics, thus enabling angry partisans and special interests to dominate public discourse.

Defenders of this focus on winners and losers would likely make two points in response. First, they might argue that the candidate who seems most likely to win is probably the one who would perform best in office, since developing an effective campaign requires the same perseverance and managerial skill that a successful occupant of the Oval Office must have. But while this claim is probably true to an extent, it does not really vindicate most actual press coverage, which focuses not on candidates’ role in organizing get-out-the-vote efforts or fundraising (which are presumably the types of activities in which the skills in question would be exercised). Rather, it focuses on things like the number of gaffes they’ve made and the appeal of their rhetoric.

Second, and more powerfully, defenders of the standard approach would likely make the obvious point that horse race coverage attracts a larger audience for a lower cost than does more substantive reporting. It is much harder to present policy proposals and governing records in a way that the typical voter finds interesting than it is to focus on the latest gaffe or scandal, and the latter are also much easier to gather information on. In response, I would argue that journalists in a democratic nation perform a vital social function that sometimes requires them to ignore market incentives. While most voters obviously do not have to be policy wonks, they cannot serve as an effective check on elected officials without a general sense of how politics affects their lives. If we want to preserve the freedoms we cherish, we must find some way of furthering the sort of journalism that provides such knowledge.

Ajay Ravichandran is a fourth-year in the College majoring in philosophy.