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Why Is There so Much Horse-Race Coverage?

Paul Krugman wonders why the media is dominated by horse-race reporting rather than substantive inquiries into policy. His hypotheses, however, all assume agency on the part of the reporter: Maybe horse races are easier to research, he wonders, or simpler to write about. But I'd suggest that the problem lies more with the reader. The media likes having an audience. And the audience likes horse-race coverage.

One way to see this is to note that the more competitive the market, the more the focus will be on horse races, outrage, personalities, gaffes and, generally speaking, political entertainment. PBS, for instance, has just about none of that. Cable news, however, is entirely based around horse races and scandal. Newspapers have a relatively high level of substance, as you might expect from institutions that long enjoyed local monopolies. But online offerings -- think Politico, Huffington Post, or even the blogosphere -- trend toward horse races, outrage, and entertainment. NPR is sober stuff. Talk radio isn't. And so it goes.

Moreover, these markets are merging. Everyone competes online. CNN has to fend off Fox. The Washington Post is conscious of the challenge from Politico. Back in the day, you could ignore audience preferences or enjoy a comfortable ignorance about them. Today, political obsessives can waste their time anywhere. If your outlet isn't as much fun as another outlet, they'll abandon you.

This is the market getting more efficient. This is the market learning how to deliver more of what people want (Sarah Palin) and less of what they don't want (the difficulties of adjusting Medicare payment rates). If policy stories begin swamping servers, people will hire more policy reporters. But there's not much evidence of that happening. That's not to say there's no room for substantive policy coverage. But the more eyeballs matter, the less substantive coverage there'll be, and I don't think it'll be the fault of reporters. A lot of the policy coverage that happens right now exists not because the audience wants it, but because the media decides they need it. As the market becomes competitive, that type of reportorial paternalism will become less and less viable.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 31, 2009; 2:51 PM ET
Categories:  Journalism  
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Good points. I'll go along 90% of the way, but can't agree that NPR is sober stuff. NPR dilutes its news with a *lot* of fluff - they don't call it "All Things Considered" for nothing - and "all things" includes a lot of perfectly fun but not at all challenging or wonkish political reporting.

If you want genuinely sober, I'd suggest the PBS News Hour show.

Posted by: Sophomore | August 31, 2009 3:01 PM | Report abuse

I cannot buy plain unwaxed floss, the kind most effective at actually cleaning teeth, at my supermarket. If I could, it would probably cost about $0.59, which is a bit more than it cost, when it was available. What is available, is a great variety of waxed floss, in pretty packages, at a high price.

That's not the market becoming "more efficient". And, the devolving quality of news reporting isn't "the market becoming more efficient" either.

When Robert Allbritton hired the leading Clinton Agonistes from the Times and Post, he knew what he was doing, he knew what he was creating. John Harris and Jim VandeHei were known quantities, with regard to the nature of their journalism and their politics. Seeding reporters into Washington Week in Review and Charlie Rose and the Sunday Morning shows, wasn't different in kind from any corporate effort to displace competitors from available shelf space at the supermarket.

Posted by: brucew07 | August 31, 2009 3:04 PM | Report abuse

Fair enough, but I think there's a chicken and egg thing going on. Presumably, the best reporters can be well-versed in policy AND write about it in a compelling manner. And presumably, the more compelling the writing the bigger the audience.

And there are plenty of columnists out there who have a command of the facts that gives them leeway to write with a distinctive voice. (Greenwald, Baker, Krugman, Klein, McArdle, Cowen, Fox, etc.)

I suppose your post could be titled "How Counting Page Views Killed Journalism"

Posted by: AronB | August 31, 2009 3:06 PM | Report abuse

Yes, but the profit incentive/equation includes cost as well as revenue.

If the demand curve for a product is relatively low, even a product with gargantuan positive externalities, then the amount produced and consumed can nonetheless be greatly increased by shifting down the cost curve, especially a cost curve that starts very high, like the cost curve for serious investigative/research reporting.

So, in spite of what you have noted, we can nonetheless greatly increase the amount of serious investigative/research reporting, with its gargantuan positive externalities, by having a tax credit of 50%, or more, for the costs, things like research assistants for reporters, fact checkers, on staff or on retainer experts, and any other costs of investigative/research reporting.

You don't think this would greatly increase the amount (and quality) of serious investigative/research reporting? If not, what about an 80% tax credit? Eventually it's going to have a strong impact, and make it a lot harder for politicians and political organizations to lie, mislead, and cover up.

Economics clearly shows the benefits of subsidizing positive externalities; it's interesting and sad that there's such an unwillingness to discuss it with the media, where the positive externalities are monumental. A program like the above could be done in a very clinical accounting way to avoid any government favoritism.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | August 31, 2009 3:11 PM | Report abuse

I'm not sure what to make of this analysis that the readers prefer the horserace (competitive gossip) aspects of the news.

It is certainly true that we are weaned on competition of all kinds, and particularly sports and entertainment battles. (The Inquirer informs me this week that Brad Pitt's gal (no sure which one) found him doing substances and he's now in drug rehab. Revelation of the week!).

But I'm more partial to the argument on balance that reporters have responsibilities, and that the reason for political competitiveness is directly related to political disagreements about policy. The reporters either don't want to get into the quicksand of having to understand the policy issues, or they don't have time (given the greater pressures to produce), or they may just be lazy or resistent to substance. It almost doesn't matter.

What 'works' in media is what can be measured easily: page views, cable viewers, magazine or newspaper circulation (and profits). It is all suspect as a measure of ultimate effectiveness: what the public needs to make informed choices.

Publishers, editors, reporters and columnists are more than a spigot, or should be. If the people really don't want to 'know', then the rest is just a silly argument leading to poor public outcomes. Maybe that is our fate: news and information as just entertainment and propaganda. If that is true, sword fights on the Senate floor would be a good solution. Or WWE between Obama and Limbaugh.

My tentative conclusion is that out-of-control need for profit-making is the root cause of whatever we have got and will get. It's probably not an accident that the best info comes from BBC, NPR, PBS, non-profits like Amer. Progress. But Monday night football has more eyeballs and that's the nature of things. We can't be bothered with things that don't offer the thrills of a Transformer brain surge.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | August 31, 2009 3:16 PM | Report abuse

Everyone's been talking about this today, but no one seems to be aware that Jay Rosen's been on this topic for quite some time. I don't want to mischaracterize his views, but I think it's fair to say that he believes there is a market for backstory and explanation in conjunction with news -- that the two complement each other. He often points to the This American Life show on The Giant Pool of Money as proof that explanation can work. I'd add that it's hard to do well. His current question is how to integrate explanation with updates in a workable way.

Posted by: someBrad | August 31, 2009 3:43 PM | Report abuse

An interesting argument. It would hold a lot more water if newspapers were selling better providing the horserace coverage that they do now. Where's your evidence that people prefer the horserace coverage to actual substance? This is just so much handwaving. Disappointing.

Posted by: TomServo | August 31, 2009 3:47 PM | Report abuse

"NPR is sober stuff. Talk radio isn't."

That sounds good, but Nice Polite Republicans just pretend to be sober. What do they do after a piece on fifty years of anti-health-reform scare stories? Why, have an straight-up interview with Dick Armey.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | August 31, 2009 4:24 PM | Report abuse

The thing is, the Interwebs let the news websites have it both ways.

They just need to write one primer about how health care reform would work, containng links to more detailed analyses, comparisons/contrasts of the four bills that have passed their committees, debunkings of absurd claims, etc.

Then the online version of every health-care article they publish, no matter how horse-racey or fluffy, has a link to the primer at the end of the second paragraph.

If NBC, ABC, CBS, the WaPo, the NYT, etc. can't manage that, then they deserve whatever sorry fate is coming to them.

Posted by: rt42 | August 31, 2009 4:26 PM | Report abuse

This is not news at all. This trend has been clear at least since the early 90s. Opinion media is much cheaper than journalism. And with a public with no attention span why invest in informative journalism? The result is we never have real policy debate in the public forum. We just have sports casting and propaganda campaigns.

Posted by: cmpnwtr | August 31, 2009 4:33 PM | Report abuse


I find that even with the fluffier stuff around, I tend to most enjoy the longer NYTimes pieces.

It's not a prejudice. But rather it matter of maximizing enjoyment and pleasure.

Perhaps, just perhaps, the yellow-journalism is a stepping stone.

After all, when I was a kid I read opinionated columnists, and found them more entertaining than the "news"...that was a stepping-stone.

Posted by: HalHorvath | August 31, 2009 4:38 PM | Report abuse

If they're all just giving people what they want to consume, then why are they all broke and dying off?

By the way, are you reading the same newspapers I gave up on? You get weeks of horserace between one off episodes of partially digested and misunderstood substance. Even in the sainted New York Times -- which is, after all, the home of all things Judy Miller.

Posted by: pj_camp | August 31, 2009 8:00 PM | Report abuse

who's Judy Miller? Does she work for the NyTimes now? hmmm...seems not.

Posted by: HalHorvath | August 31, 2009 10:33 PM | Report abuse

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