Facts, Bias, and Horse-Race Journalism

I’ve been thinking a lot this election season about an argument from Peter Levine’s We Are the One’s We’ve Been Waiting For.

What if, instead of horse-race journalism where pundits try to predict who will win, our media environment was governed by “public journalism” or “civic journalism” – with reporters asking who should win?

This question seems to fly in the face of common understandings of “good” journalism. Good journalism should be neutral, non-biased, and fact based. By tackling an inherently biased question such as “who should win,” a journalist cannot possibly meet appropriate ethical standards.

Yet, that’s not an entirely accurate take on the situation.

I love quoting Bent Flyvbjerg’s modified proverb: “power is knowledge” – that is, as Flyvbjerg argues, those with power define what counts as knowledge and fundamentally shape reality with their power.

In Rationality and Power, Flyvbjerg meticulously documents how power shapes knowledge throughout the planning process for a new transit hub in Aalborg. The initial list of proposed sites indicates one as most promising, numerous studies confirm the promise of that site and the problems with other sites. Yet – that “promising” site was, in fact, pre-selected by elites and all the research in which that option naturally rises to the top as the best choice is carefully, artfully curated to ensure that decision.

In Power and Powerlessness, John Gaventa similarly argues that power shapes reality – as people in power get to choose not only what issues are addressed, but also what issues are raised.

Both Flyvbjerg and Gaventa warn about the invisibility of this power – in the most insidious, entrenched power structures, this subtle shaping of what does and does not count as knowledge goes largely unnoticed. It’s just taken as a giving that the issues talked about, and the framing given to them, are the factual, non-biased ways to address them.

And this is what is so dangerous about horse-race politics. It’s presented as neutral, but in fact, it’s not neutral at all. Every decision about what does or does not become part of the conversation shapes the electoral atmosphere. There is no neutral coverage.

Levine provides an example of an alternative approach: in the early 1900s, the Charlotte Observer dispensed with “horse race campaign coverage, that is, stories about how the campaigns were trying to win the election. Instead, the Observer convened representative citizens to choose issues for reporters to investigate and to draft questions that the candidates were asked to answer on the pages of the newspaper.”

In this way, political coverage responds to the interests and priorities of “the people” writ large, without devolving into a mess where no knowledge is taken fact leaving only “mere opinion.”

They may be other, and possibility better, approaches as well.

All I know is that now – one week away from the end of the 2016 Presidential Election – after all the coverage, all the ads, all the sound and fury that has gone on for months…I find myself wishing we’d spent just a little more time not asking who will win, but really examining: who should win?


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