Last week I wrote about the political differences between Australia and the U.S.; specifically, the perils of drawing any too neat comparisons between the political characters of the nations as each thrashes its way through its own unique electoral season.
This week, I’m writing about some similarities between Australia and the U.S. While the issues, personalities, and political systems driving each nation’s election may be different, the reporters covering them on both sides of the Pacific can take remarkably similar, predictable, depressing, approaches. So-called “horse-race” reporting—sound bite-driven, he-said-she-said, stat-obsessed, poll-heavy, strategy-focused—is a major draw whichever end of the equator you’re on.
The horse-race comparison was made by NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, in Australia this week for the final days of the country’s prime ministerial election. Rosen, scathing as ever about the state of modern electoral coverage, has been on TV, behind podiums, and in meeting rooms discussing “horse-race journalism,” which he defined in an interview on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) Lateline as “a reusable model for how to do campaign coverage in which you focus on who’s going to win rather than what the country needs to settle by electing a prime minister.”
On a Gchat interview with me from Melbourne, Rosen elaborated on his thoughts about the similarities between the Australian and U.S. political media. “What struck me was not that the coverage of the election is exactly the same in some global sense; for example, I don’t know any programs in the U.S. that would do as careful a job in summing up the campaign as Four Corners [another ABC program] did last night. However, what struck me is that when Australian journalists do the savvy, they do it exactly like American journalists do. The tonal match is perfect.”
A quick survey of political coverage in the nation’s most respected broadsheets—The Age in Melbourne, The Sydney Morning Herald, and Murdoch’s national daily, The Australian—shows that while there is some pointed writing on the issues, the horse-race certainly isn’t limited to Sunday mornings. One of my favorite bits from today’s Australian is this, an issue-free nutgraf from a report on a prime ministerial town hall debate that manages to touch on political theatre, polling, press coverage, and positioning in just two sentences.
Last night’s town hall-style forum at the Broncos Leagues Club represented the leaders’ final opportunity for extended national television coverage. But neither Ms Gillard nor Tony Abbott could land a knock-out blow, although a straw poll of the audience gave it narrowly to the Prime Minister.
That one graf, which has a more than familiar ring to those of us wading through the midterm coverage, pretty much gives you the gist of the piece.
Talking about the horse-race in Sydney and Melbourne, and witnessing it in action in the media’s coverage of the contest between Prime Minister Julia Gillard and challenger Tony Abbott, inspired Rosen to revisit his proposal for a horse-race alternative, his Citizen’s Agenda approach to campaign coverage. He suggests—with ten practical steps—that outlets first survey their readers/viewers/listeners to find out the ten issues they are most concerned about, hone the list, publish it, and use it to direct their campaign coverage. Don’t neglect the polls, just remember to serve the readers first; give weight to the issues, not to the standings. Ask questions the public wants to hear answered.