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Are the Media "Horse-Racing" in This Election?

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Election campaigns have always been fodder for journalists and media watchers to lament the state of political coverage in today's media. Usually, criticisms are levied on journalists' exuberance for the "horse-race" -- who's winning, who's losing -- at the expense of discussion on the issues citizens care about.

Recent research released in both Canada and the U.S., however, suggests this horse-race preoccupation is misguided and that energies would be better placed worrying about how to improve other aspects of media coverage.

Last week, the Pew Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism released a report of how the current U.S. presidential election is covered by print, broadcast and social media.

Pew found that, overall, this year's election coverage has focused less on the horse-race than in the 2008 contest. According to Pew's figures, 38 per cent of the coverage they examined was focused on campaign strategy, tactics and discussions on who was winning.

This is remarkably less than four years ago, when 53 per cent of the stories focused on the horse-race. In both elections, about 22 per cent of the coverage was focused on the candidates' policy positions.

Pew's research also examines the stories' tones, and found that the coverage of both Obama and Romney was usually mixed to negative, although Obama has more positive coverage before the October debates, and Romney afterwards. Little love lost for either man, or so it appears.

While no Canadian organizations provides the regular media monitoring of Pew in the U.S., research done by Samara, where I am a co-founder, provides an interesting comparison.

In an analysis of how the government's legislative agenda was covered last fall, Canadian media coverage was analyzed along some of the same dimensions.

Samara's research shows that political news is not overtly or routinely negative. It changes with the arch of the story and differs depending on the medium. Specifically, television news was consistently positive, while that of newspapers was consistently negative.

Furthermore, less than one-third of Canadian coverage was focused on the horse race. A full 44 per cent focused on policy issues. Of course, this is analysis that took place outside of an election, so we might expect less of the "who's up and who's down" coverage.

That said, it's notable that with one-third of Canadian stories focused on the horse race, Parliamentary journalists, in aggregate, are only slightly less focused on these kinds of stories than are U.S. reporters during an election. As noted above, Pew found 38 per cent of stories were dominated by the horse race.

So where should media analysts focus their energies?

The bad news for journalism, according to the Samara study, is how little fact checking, context or analysis was provided in the 7,500 stories it analyzed. Of those focused on government legislation, only 24 per cent were considered very informative.

That trend is echoed in the Pew report as well. Although it doesn't analyze for information specifically, as the report's author, Tom Rosensteil notes in this interview with CBC Radio's The Current, there is less background or context in election coverage today than in the past.

Here's his response to guest host Jonathan Goldstein's question, "Who do you think sets the agenda for the coverage, the media or the candidates themselves?"

"The candidates, and increasingly so. Technology makes the media move faster. Stories are less well-sourced than they used to be. In our earlier studies we've see that the source in stories tends, more often, to be candidates and their surrogates than was the case four, eight and 12 years ago."

This concern is also echoed in a recent post by Craig Kanalley in which he summarizes a discussion with Facebook VP Joe Lockhart, a former White House Press Secretary and broadcast journalist.

Lockhart also laments media's declining ability to inform the public, exacerbated by business challenges all journalism organizations are facing. Even fact-checking, which is on the rise due, in part, to organizations such as PolitiFact (of which Canada has no equivalent), cannot fill the void.

"Yes, there are fact checkers, but content producers are always going to beat fact checkers and censors," Kanalley reports. So what to do? Part of the responsibility falls to non-profit organizations, like Samara, who are investing in research into politics so to be a resource for citizens.

But as media columnist Tim Knight points out, there are other ways journalists can adapt in light of these data:

"The first is -- tell stories. Forget that damned inverted pyramid which demands that you start with the latest information and work backwards. Human beings neither understand nor retain information packaged that way. Particularly when it comes to complex information like politics.

Replace the pyramid with traditional storytelling, almost always chronological. Context first, followed by dramatic development and climax.

And when you've done all that, talk to the viewer like one human talking to another. And don't confuse speed and volume with authority and sagacity.

My second answer is -- newsroom bosses must demand that the story brings understanding to the reader or viewer. If it doesn't (unless it has some other overriding virtue) kill it."

Comments and ideas are welcome below.

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