When journalists covering elections focus primarily on who’s winning or losing — instead of on policy issues — voters, candidates and the news industry itself suffer, a growing body of research has found.
Media scholars have studied so-called “horse race” reporting for decades to better understand the impact of news stories that frame elections as a competitive game, relying heavily on public opinion polls and giving the most positive attention to frontrunners and underdogs who are gaining in popularity. It’s a common strategy for political coverage in the United States and other parts of the world.
Thomas E. Patterson, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Bradlee professor of government and the press, says election coverage often does not delve into policy issues — what candidates say they would do if elected. Policy issues accounted for 10% of news coverage of the 2016 general presidential election, according to an analysis Patterson did as part of a research series that looks at journalists’ work leading up to and during the election. The bulk of coverage that Patterson examined concentrated on who was winning and losing and why.
“The horserace has been the dominant theme of election news since the 1970s, when news organizations began to conduct their own election polls,” Patterson writes in a December 2016 working paper, “News Coverage of the 2016 General Election: How the Press Failed the Voters.” “Since then, polls have proliferated to the point where well over a hundred separate polls — more than a new poll each day — were reported in major news outlets during the 2016 general election.”
Decades of academic studies find that horse race reporting is linked to:
- Distrust in politicians.
- Distrust of news outlets.
- An uninformed electorate.
- Inaccurate reporting of opinion poll data.
Horse race coverage also:
- Is detrimental to female political candidates, who tend to focus on policy issues to build credibility.
- Gives an advantage to novel and unusual candidates.
- Shortchanges third-party candidates, who often are overlooked or ignored because their chances of winning are slim compared to Republican and Democratic candidates.
Horse race reporting helped catapult billionaire businessman Donald Trump to a lead position during the nominating phase of the 2016 presidential campaign, finds another paper in Patterson’s research series, “News Coverage of the 2016 Presidential Primaries: Horse Race Reporting Has Consequences.”
“The media’s tendency to allocate coverage based on winning and losing affects voters’ decisions,” Patterson writes. “The press’s attention to early winners, and its tendency to afford them more positive coverage than their competitors, is not designed to boost their chances, but that’s a predictable effect.
The following academic studies, most of which were published in peer-reviewed journals, investigate the consequences of horse race reporting from multiple angles. For added context, we included several studies that take a critical look at how journalists use and interpret opinion polls in their election stories.
The Consequences of Strategic News Coverage for Democracy: A Meta-Analysis
Zoizner, Alon. Communication Research, 2018.
In this study, researcher Alon Zoizner of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, analyzes 32 studies published or released from 1997 to 2016 that examine the effects of “strategic news” coverage. Zoizner describes strategic news coverage as the “coverage of politics [that] often focuses on politicians’ strategies and tactics as well as their campaign performance and position at the polls.”
Among the main takeaways: This type of reporting elevates the public’s cynicism toward politics and the issues featured as part of that coverage.
“In other words,” Zoizner writes, “this coverage leads to a specific public perception of politics that is dominated by a focus on political actors’ motivations for gaining power rather than their substantive concerns for the common good.”
He adds that young people, in particular, are susceptible to the effects of strategic news coverage because they have limited experience with the democratic process. They “may develop deep feelings of mistrust toward political elites, which will persist throughout their adult lives,” Zoizner writes.
His analysis also finds that this kind of reporting results in an uninformed electorate. The public receives less information about public policies and candidates’ positions on important issues.
“This finding erodes the media’s informative value because journalists cultivate a specific knowledge about politics that fosters political alienation rather than helping citizens make rational decisions based on substantive information,” the author writes. Framing politics as a game to be won “inhibits the development of an informed citizenship because the public is mostly familiar with the political rivalries instead of actually knowing what the substantive debate is about.”
Another key finding: Strategic news coverage hurts news outlets’ reputations. People exposed to it “are more critical of news stories and consider them to be less credible, interesting, and of low quality,” Zoizner explains. “Strategic coverage will continue to be a part of the news diet but in parallel will lead citizens to develop higher levels of cynicism and criticism not only toward politicians but also toward the media.”
News Coverage of the 2016 Presidential Primaries: Horse Race Reporting Has Consequences
Patterson, Thomas E. Harvard Kennedy School working paper, December 2016.
Horse race reporting gave Donald Trump an advantage during the 2016 presidential primary season, this working paper finds. Nearly 60% of the election news analyzed during this period characterized the election as a competitive game, with Trump receiving the most coverage of any candidate seeking the Republican nomination. In the final five weeks of the primary campaign, the press gave him more coverage than Democratic frontrunners Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
“The media’s obsession with Trump during the primaries meant that the Republican race was afforded far more coverage than the Democratic race, even though it lasted five weeks longer,” writes Patterson, who looked at election news coverage provided by eight major print and broadcast outlets over the first five months of 2016. “The Republican contest got 63 percent of the total coverage between January 1 and June 7, compared with the Democrats’ 37 percent — a margin of more than three to two.”
Patterson’s paper takes a detailed look at the proportion and tone of coverage for Republican and Democratic candidates during each stage of the primary campaign. He notes that the structure of the nominating process lends itself to horse race reporting. “Tasked with covering fifty contests crammed into the space of several months,” he writes, “journalists are unable to take their eyes or minds off the horse race or to resist the temptation to build their narratives around the candidates’ position in the race.”
Patterson explains how horse race journalism affects candidates’ images and can influence voter decisions. “The press’s attention to early winners, and its tendency to afford them more positive coverage than their competitors, is not designed to boost their chances, but that’s a predictable effect,” he writes. He points out that a candidate who’s performing well usually is portrayed positively while one who isn’t doing as well “has his or her weakest features put before the public.”
Patterson asserts that primary election coverage is “the inverse of what would work best for voters.” “Most voters don’t truly engage the campaign until the primary election stage,” he writes. “As a result, they enter the campaign nearly at the point of decision, unarmed with anything approaching a clear understanding of their choices. They are greeted by news coverage that’s long on the horse race and short on substance … It’s not until later in the process, when the race is nearly settled, that substance comes more fully into the mix.”
What Predicts the Game Frame? Media Ownership, Electoral Context, and Campaign News
Dunaway, Johanna; Lawrence, Regina G. Political Communication, 2015.
This study finds that corporate-owned and large-chain newspapers were more likely to publish stories that frame elections as a competitive game than newspapers with a single owner. It also finds that horse race coverage was most prevalent in close races and during the weeks leading up to an election.
Researchers Johanna Dunaway, an associate professor of communication at Texas A&M University, and Regina G. Lawrence, associate dean of the School of Journalism and Communication Portland, looked at print news stories about elections for governor and U.S. Senate in 2004, 2006 and 2008. They analyzed 10,784 articles published by 259 newspapers between Sept. 1 and Election Day of those years.
Their examination reveals that privately-owned, large-chain publications behave similarly to publications controlled by shareholders. “We expected public shareholder-controlled news organizations to be most likely to resort to game-framed news because of their tendency to emphasize the profit motive over other goals; in fact, privately owned large chains are slightly more likely to use the game frame in their campaign news coverage at mean levels of electoral competition,” Dunaway and Lawrence write.
They note that regardless of a news outlet’s ownership structure, journalists and audiences are drawn to the horse race in close races. “Given a close race, newspapers of many types will tend to converge on a game-framed election narrative and, by extension, stories focusing on who’s up/who’s down will crowd out stories about the policy issues they are presumably being elected to address,” the authors write. “And, as the days-’til-election variable shows, this pattern will intensify across the course of a close race.”
Gender Bias and Mainstream Media
Conroy, Meredith. Chapter within the book Masculinity, Media, and the American Presidency, 2015.
In this book chapter, Meredith Conroy, an associate professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, draws on earlier research that finds horse race coverage is more detrimental to women than men running for elected office. She explains that female candidates often emphasize their issue positions as a campaign strategy to bolster their credibility.
“If the election coverage neglects the issues, women may miss out on the opportunity to assuage fears about their perceived incompetency,” she writes. She adds that when the news “neglects substantive coverage, the focus turns to a focus on personality and appearance.”
“An overemphasis on personality and appearance is detrimental to women, as it further delegitimizes their place in the political realm, more so than for men, whose negative traits are still often masculine and thus still relevant to politics,” she writes.
Contagious Media Effects: How Media Use and Exposure to Game-Framed News Influence Media Trust
Hopmann, David Nicolas; Shehata, Adam; Strömbäck, Jesper. Mass Communication and Society, 2015.
How does framing politics as a strategic game influence the public’s trust in journalism? This study of Swedish news coverage suggests it lowers trust in all forms of print and broadcast news media — except tabloid newspapers.
The authors note that earlier research indicates people who don’t trust mainstream media often turn to tabloids for news. “By framing politics as a strategic game and thereby undermining trust not only in politics but also in the media, the media may thus simultaneously weaken the incentives for people to follow the news in mainstream media and strengthen the incentives for people to turn to alternative news sources,” write the authors, David Nicolas Hopmann, an associate professor at University of Southern Denmark, Adam Shehata, a senior lecturer at the University of Gothenburg, and Jesper Strömbäck, a professor at the University of Gothenburg.
The three researchers analyzed how four daily newspapers and three daily “newscasts” covered the 2010 Swedish national election campaign. They also looked at the results of surveys aimed at measuring people’s attitudes toward the Swedish news media in the months leading up to and immediately after the 2010 election. The sample comprised 4,760 respondents aged 18 to 74.
Another key takeaway of this study: The researchers discovered that when people read tabloid newspapers, their trust in them grows as does their distrust of the other media. “Taken together, these findings suggest that the mistrust caused by the framing of politics as a strategic game is contagious in two senses,” they write. “For all media except the tabloids, the mistrust toward politicians implied by the framing of politics as a strategic game is extended to the media-making use of this particular framing, whereas in the case of the tabloids, it is extended to other media.”
How journalists use opinion polls
This study, based on in-depth interviews with 41 U.S. journalists, media analysts and public opinion pollsters, documents changes in how news outlets cover public opinion. It reveals, among other things, “evidence of eroding internal newsroom standards about which polls to reference in coverage and how to adjudicate between surveys,” writes the author, Benjamin Toff, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Toff notes that journalists’ focus on polling aggregator websites paired with the growing availability of online survey data has resulted in an overconfidence in polls’ ability to predict election outcomes — what one reporter he interviewed called the “Nate Silver effect.”
Both journalists and polling professionals expressed concern about journalists’ lack of training and their reliance on poll firms’ reputations as evidence of poll quality rather than the poll’s sampling design and other methodological details. Toff, who completed the interviews between October 2014 and May 2015, points out that advocacy organizations can take advantage of the situation to get reporters to unknowingly disseminate their messages.
The study also finds that younger journalists and those who work for online news organizations are less likely to consider it their job to interpret polls for the public. One online journalist, for example, told Toff that readers should help determine the reliability of poll results and that “in a lot of ways Twitter is our ombudsman.”
Toff calls on academic researchers to help improve coverage of public opinion, in part by offering clearer guidance on best practices for news reporting. “The challenge of interpreting public opinion is a collective one,” he writes, “and scholarship which merely chastises journalists for their shortcomings does not offer a productive path forward.”
Transforming Stability into Change: How the Media Select and Report Opinion Polls
Larsen, Erik Gahner; Fazekas, Zoltán. The International Journal of Press/Politics, 2019.
In this study, researchers find that journalists covering Danish elections are more likely to cover polls that suggest shifts in voter support than polls that reflect stable voter support. The researchers also find that when journalists tell their audiences that voter support has risen or fallen, it’s often misleading — there usually has been no statistically significant change when taking the poll’s margin of error into account.
Erik Gahner Larsen, a lecturer in quantitative politics at the University of Kent, and Zoltán Fazekas, an associate professor of business and politics at the Copenhagen Business School, examined news coverage of all opinion polls that eight polling firms conducted between 2011 and 2015 to measure Danish voters’ intentions. The analysis focuses on 4,147 news articles published on the websites of nine newspapers and two national TV companies, which, together, featured the results of a combined 412 opinion polls.
“In a majority of the cases the [journalists’] reporting should be about stability,” Larsen and Fazekas write. “However, 58% of the articles mention change in their title. Furthermore, while 82% of the polls have no statistically significant changes, 86% of the articles does not mention any considerations related to uncertainty.”
The authors note their findings reflect “systematic patterns in how journalists turn these polls into an illusionary political horserace.”
News Reporting of Opinion Polls: Journalism and Statistical Noise
Bhatti, Yosef; Pedersen, Rasmus Tue. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 2016.
This paper, which also looks at news coverage of opinion polls in Denmark, finds that Danish journalists don’t do a great job reporting on opinion polls. Most journalists whose work was examined don’t seem to understand how a poll’s margin of error affects its results. Also, they often fail to explain to their audiences the statistical uncertainty of poll results, according to the authors, Yosef Bhatti of Roskilde University and Rasmus Tue Pedersen of the Danish Center for Social Science Research.
The two researchers analyzed the poll coverage provided by seven Danish newspapers before, during and after the 2011 parliamentary election campaign — a 260-day period from May 9, 2011 to Jan. 23, 2012. A total of 1,078 articles were examined.
Bhatti and Pedersen find that journalists often interpreted two poll results as different from each other when, considering the poll’s uncertainty, it actually was unclear whether one result was larger or smaller than the other. “A large share of the interpretations made by the journalists is based on differences in numbers that are so small that they are most likely just statistical noise,” they write.
They note that bad poll reporting might be the result of journalists’ poor statistical skills. But it “may also be driven by journalists’ and editors’ desires for interesting horse race stories,” the authors add. “Hence, the problem may not be a lack of methodological skills but may also be caused by a lack of a genuine adherence to the journalistic norms of reliability and fact-based news. If this is the case, unsubstantiated poll stories may be a more permanent and unavoidable feature of modern horse race coverage.”
Looking for more information on horse race reporting and opinion polls? Check out our tip sheet outlining 11 questions journalists should ask about opinion polls and our write-up of a study that finds that academic scholars are more likely to be included in horse race stories than issue coverage. Our collection of research on opinion polls digs into such things as polling errors and the relationship between media coverage and polling.