The Role of the Media in the American Election

By Seth Huiras

The American electorate may have several questions on their mind while searching the news for political updates. People might be wondering who is winning the race, how much money is being spent on campaigning and where the money is coming from. In addition to news stories, the public has had its mouth full of political advertisements as campaigning began years before the election and continues past the debates. The public’s knowledge of politics may be distorted from muckraking or flat out lying on television and political commentary, so the very significant question of who to vote for rises to the top of the electorate’s conscious. The media must therefore take time to reflect on which questions occupy the news agenda and where the boundary lies between political pandering and significant news values.

One type of political journalism is known as “horse race coverage,” in which a story focuses on which candidate is in the lead. Ed Kilgore from the Washington Monthly reported that a media bias for supporting the underdog leads to tightened polls and contributing to more horse race reporting. Horse race reporting may also use cliché themes such as “Obama, Romney hone messages for final stretch” as seen in the headline of The Washington Post online. “The final stretch” really means the last days of the election but it evokes a baseball player rounding third base or a football running back with ten yards to go.

According to a Minnesota Public Radio interview with Larry Jacobs, a specialist in presidential politics and polling at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, a poll’s accuracy is more effective when conducted by an independent organization and is more believable to the public. Also, releasing information such as how the questions were framed, the sample size and the demographics contextualizes a poll and allows people to analyze it more effectively. He said that people should account for polls as a way for politicians to gain recognition.

Despite much criticism, horse race reporting that doesn’t use sports metaphors and generalizations can help voters engage in the political process. Greg Marx from the Columbia Journalism Review said that during the political primary elections, voters should understand how and why parties chose a particular candidate. National polls may be helpful in the long-term by revealing the political atmosphere of the country instead of predicting who might win a few days before an election.

The accuracy of polling may be difficult to interpret, despite the media’s best efforts. For instance, a poll might show likely voters. On the other hand, it might simply reflect adults eligible to vote. In the United States, the law does not require voting and no fines are given to nonparticipating adults. Furthermore, it might not discuss the implications of the Electoral College and states where politicians are focusing their attentions.
Media critics may hold the opinion that American politics has left an indelible mark on the public as little more than a popularity contest. Through the good and the bad however, the media continues to play a crucial part in answering the most important questions on the public’s mind because it is the primary and only professional institution to fulfill this role.

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