Expert Commentary

‘Horse race’ coverage of elections: What to avoid and how to get it right

It's unlikely journalists will stop covering elections as a competitive game, despite researchers' warnings that it can harm voters and others. Two scholars offer ideas for at least improving so-called 'horse race' reporting.

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Newsrooms for decades have been amply criticized for covering elections as a competitive game, with a focus on who’s winning and losing instead of on policy positions. And even though researchers continue to document the various ways so-called “horse race” reporting can hurt voters, candidates and even news outlets themselves, it’s unlikely journalists will stop doing it or that audiences will stop seeking it out.

In fact, horse race coverage of elections has become much more common over the years, thanks in part to the dramatic rise in public opinion polls, which allow journalists to track voter support for candidates.

Harvard Kennedy School media scholar Thomas E. Patterson, who has studied election coverage for decades, has said news outlets fail their audiences when they prioritize poll results and campaign strategy over discussions about candidates’ qualifications, leadership styles and policy stances.

Horse race coverage is partly to blame for “the car wreck that was the 2016 election,” Patterson writes in a December 2016 working paper, “News Coverage of the 2016 General Election: How the Press Failed the Voters.”

“In the 2016 general election, policy issues accounted for 10% of the news coverage — less than a fourth the space given to the horserace,” writes Patterson, who is the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

While many scholars and industry leaders argue news outlets should curb or eliminate horse race coverage, some say they would have fewer concerns if news stories were more accurate. Multiple studies published over the last decade point out problems in the way journalists interpret and report on opinion polls.

“We’re not necessarily against horse race journalism, but we should be thinking about, ‘Why does it look the way it does?’ and ‘How can it be improved?” says researcher Erik Gahner Larsen, who studies journalists’ use of opinion polls and co-wrote a book about it, Reporting Public Opinion: How the Media Turns Boring Polls into Biased News, released last year.

We asked Patterson and Larsen for their ideas on how newsrooms could improve horse race coverage. Both shared important insights and advice on what journalists should avoid and how to get it right.

WHAT TO AVOID: Reporting on any opinion poll you come across. 
HOW TO GET IT RIGHT: Scrutinize and compare opinion polls to gauge their quality. Rely most often on those conducted by reputable pollsters.

Patterson and Larsen urge journalists to pay attention to the details of a poll, including the questions asked, when the poll was conducted, how many people participated and how well that group represents the population as a whole. When comparing polls, keep in mind many factors can lead to differences in their results.

For example, the way pollsters word their questions and the order in which they ask them can affect people’s responses. Because local, national and international events can influence public sentiment, two polls conducted just days or weeks apart could draw drastically different results, even if participants answered the same questions in the same order.

Patterson suggests news outlets rely on poll results from firms with a long history of high-quality work and use caution when reporting on results from entities with less experience and expertise. He identifies these as reputable organizations that conduct national polls in the U.S.: 

WHAT TO AVOID: Focusing on a single opinion poll — especially outliers — without providing context.

HOW TO GET IT RIGHT: When covering an individual poll, put its findings into perspective by noting historic trends and what other recent polls show. Consider combining poll results and reporting averages to give audiences the most accurate picture of public sentiment.

“Don’t just cover one, but look at the full picture,” Larsen says. “Acknowledge the existence of other opinion polls. How does [this poll] compare to long-term trends?”

He warns against overplaying outliers, or polls with results that differ substantially from or even contradict the findings of most other polls. While journalists and audiences might find polls showing major changes more interesting, their findings probably are not reliable and might be a statistical fluke, Larsen explains.

Combining poll results and reporting on averages would offer audiences the best understanding of public opinion at a given point in time. Only some news organizations have the technical expertise to perform such analyses, however.

For journalists who need help calculating weighted averages, Larsen recommends reaching out to a pollster or statistician. Journalists also can go to FiveThirtyEight, a news outlet specializing in polling and sophisticated data analysis, to check out weighted averages for some polls.

WHAT TO AVOID: Covering poll results without taking into account the poll’s margin of error.
HOW TO GET IT RIGHT: Learn what a margin of error is and how it relates to polling and poll results. Make sure news stories featuring poll results reflect their margins of error.

The margin of error, typically expressed as a range of numbers, indicates how likely the opinions expressed by people who participated in an opinion poll reflect the opinions of the population as a whole.

When journalists ignore or overlook a poll’s margin of error — the subject of this journalism tip sheet — their news stories often misrepresent the results. One of the most common mistakes journalists make is reporting that a particular political candidate has more or less voter support than another when, in fact, considering the poll’s margin of error, it’s simply too close to tell.

For example, let’s say a polling firm asks a nationally representative sample of 1,000 registered voters in the U.S. whether they would pick Candidate A or Candidate B in an election. And let’s say 51% of those voters select Candidate A and 49% pick Candidate B and the poll’s margin of error is 4%. Many journalists would report that Candidate A has greater public support, which is incorrect.

The correct interpretation of this poll: If this polling firm had been able to ask the same question of every registered voter in the U.S., the actual share of all voters who prefer Candidate A likely falls somewhere between 47% to 55% and the actual percentage preferring Candidate B likely ranges between 45% and 53%. In this case, journalists should report that it’s unclear which candidate has more support. It also would be accurate to say the two candidates are “statistically tied.”

Larsen and a fellow researcher studied news coverage of polls in Denmark and learned that journalists tend to focus on polls they perceive as showing the biggest changes. In the resulting paper, published in 2020 in The International Journal of Press/Politics, Larsen and his coauthor note that most of the 4,147 print and TV news stories they reviewed inaccurately describe differences in poll results.

Often, journalists reported changes in poll results when no change actually occurred, notes Larsen, senior scientific adviser at the Conflict Analysis Research Centre at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom.

He encourages journalists to ask experts for help describing poll results.

“I think that it’s good advice to say go to political scientists and experts and statisticians — when in doubt, its good to reach out to professionals,” he says. “It can easily be complicated stuff.”

WHAT TO AVOID: Narrowly focusing this year’s midterm election coverage on whether Republicans or Democrats will secure top offices, including seats in the U.S. House and Senate.

HOW TO GET IT RIGHT: While many news outlets will cover the midterms as a race to control Congress, it’s important that journalists also examine the implications of the election and what the research says about how U.S. presidential approval ratings influence voter choices.

Patterson urges journalists to make clear what the results of this year’s elections will mean for the country and how it’s governed. While midterm elections historically have drawn much smaller crowds than during presidential election years, voter turnout appears to be growing — and becoming more diverse.

In 2018, 53.4% of the voting-age population cast ballots, up from 41.9% during the 2014 midterms, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Turnout among America’s youngest voters — adults aged 18 to 29 years — jumped 79% from 2014 to 2018, more than any other age group. Hispanic voter turnout rose 50%.

Patterson suggests newsrooms also broaden their election coverage by looking at the link between presidential approval ratings and voter behavior. Research finds that the president’s political party usually loses seats in Congress during midterm elections and that the loss is larger when the president’s party also controls Congress.

Patterson stresses that this year’s election could turn out differently, however.

“There are dynamics particular to this election that will make it a little-less-than-typical midterm,” he says, noting that the general election will take place after most states have redrawn their political districts in response to 2020 census data. The election also follows the adoption of a new voting law in Texas that resulted in the rejection of at least 18,000 mail-in ballots cast during the state’s March primary.

“We have more uncertainty around this midterm,” Patterson says.

WHAT TO AVOID: Assuming that simply cutting coverage of opinion polls will improve election news and lead to a more informed electorate.
HOW TO GET IT RIGHT: Recognize that horse race reporting takes several forms and audiences seek it out because they’re drawn to competitions. Make horse race coverage more valuable by incorporating information voters need to make their choices.

National election coverage focuses heavily on opinion polls, but at the state and local level, polling is far less common. So journalists covering city-, county- and state-level elections use other methods to measure public support and answer the ever-present questions “Who’s winning?” and “Who’s losing?”

One way to do that is by monitoring candidates’ fundraising activities and periodically comparing how much money they have raised and spent. Another way to gauge who’s ahead: Tracking candidates’ success in drawing support from influential community leaders, legislators and groups such as teachers unions, law enforcement associations and chambers of commerce.

In some parts of the U.S., local organizations hold straw polls online or at events to get a sense of who voters favor. And local newsrooms often report the results of these informal vote tallies.

Over the years, journalism organizations such as the Poynter Institute and industry critics such as New York Magazine columnist Ed Kilgore and pollster Mark Blumenthal have offered ideas for improving horse race journalism in its various forms.

Blumenthal, the former senior polling editor for The Huffington Post, says news outlets should incorporate coverage of candidates’ qualifications and policy proposals into their horse race coverage.

The reason audiences seek out horse race stories is because they find them more interesting than stories summarizing candidates’ issue positions, he writes in a piece published by NBC News. He adds that journalists should “use the drama of the horse race to draw readers into coverage that connects campaign strategies to the underlying contrasts (on issues, qualifications, leadership styles) between the candidates.”

“If a story attracts readers or viewers interested in ‘who is going to win,’ how well does that story highlight the debate between the candidates?” Blumenthal writes. “How well does it use the tools of its particular medium (hyperlinks, sidebars or on-air references to Web site URLs) to promote stories or resources that give uncertain voters ‘what they need to know’ to make better decisions?”

Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar and writing instructor at Poynter, has suggested political journalists look to their colleagues who cover sports for ideas on how to revamp horse race reporting.

In “In Defense of the Horse Race,” published on Poynter’s website in 2008, Clark praises The Boston Globe’s Super Bowl coverage, pointing out that football fans interact energetically with the Globe’s website. It offers traditional coverage of the game event as well as opportunities for audience members to share opinions and engage with one another.

“What if we imagined the coverage of Super Tuesday the way we experience the Super Bowl?,” Clark asks.

He writes that journalists should use horse race coverage to grab audiences’ attention and direct them toward more in-depth coverage.

“If the contest is taut, competitive and exciting, we’ll sit riveted to find out what will happen next,” he writes.

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