Horse-race journalism is nothing new

By Craig Chamberlain

As if they were calling a horse race, election-season pollsters and pundits provide their daily insight as to which candidate is out front, who's trailing the pack, and who's stumbling. Critics of such journalistic practice say that the coverage of issues suffers, and voters don't get what they need. Ah, for the good old days, right?

Wrong. Not only has horse-race journalism been around nearly 170 years, "there never was a golden era of political journalism," says Thomas Littlewood, a UI journalism professor.

"The conception that some people have, including some academics, that there was a golden age of very lucid, penetrating, informative, issue-based journalism in the past is not true," Littlewood said.

In the 1820s, supporters of Andrew Jackson conducted the first straw polls, said Littlewood, who is working on a history of campaign reporting. They would conduct what were very unscientific polls at rallies and social events friendly to their cause, then take the favorable results to partisan newspapers to get them published.

It wasn't "circulation-grubbing newspaper editors" who instigated those first straw polls, Littlewood noted, but politicians seeking a way to get Jackson, their presidential candidate, noticed by the political establishment.

Although the use of that type of poll died out, the interest in the horse race never did, said Littlewood, a former campaign reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. "Once we had a system of competitive elections, the thing about elections that people were most interested in is who is going to win.

Anybody who knows anything about the dynamics of news knows that this is the big story."

But there also are aspects of American culture and history that have aided that interest, Littlewood said. One of those is the American love of gambling. Beginning in the late 19th century, "newspapers devoted a lot of space to 'news' of the wagering odds and the volume of bets [on election outcomes], as though the professional gamblers somehow had insight into the voting behavior of the American people," he said.

Another influence has been sports, Littlewood said. "Many political journalists began their careers in the sports department. Once commercial sports began to flourish at the end of the last century, politicians and political reporters knew that they could compete for public attention only by emulating the language and many of the cultural features of sports."

Horse-race journalism will probably always be around, Littlewood said. "Really at the heart of all this is the collective interest that journalists have in a good story," and the campaign race provides that. "But what happens now, and it need not happen, is that it drowns out everything else."

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Comments to: Inside Illinois Editor Doris Dahl, (217) 333-2895, d-dahl2@illinois.edu

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