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Horse Race Coverage & the Political Spectacle
At Time magazine, a focus on who will break out of the pack?!
As the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary approaches, it's all horse race all the time in the news media with an almost exclusive focus on "insider" coverage of campaign strategy and a fascination with who's ahead and who's behind in the polls. Lost in the media spectacle is any careful coverage of issues and policy proposals, or serious discussion of candidate background. In fact, it seems there's never been a time in 2007 where issues have taken primacy over the sports game of political coverage.
Consider that an analysis by Pew and Harvard University of the first five months of coverage in 2007 finds that 63% of the campaign stories focused on political and tactical aspects compared to just 17% that focused on the personal backgrounds of the candidates, 15% that focused on the candidates' ideas and policy proposals and just 1% of stories that examined the candidates' records or past public performance.
I was asked to contribute an overview on horse race journalism to the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Survey Research Methods. Below I have posted a first draft of the overview, at roughly 1800 words it provides a good backgrounder on the nature and impacts of horse race journalism, though I strongly recommend checking out the sources cited.
Horse Race Journalism
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D.
In contemporary political reporting, a focus on elections and policy debates as "a game" among competing candidates and elites has come to dominate virtually every aspect of coverage. Rather than foregrounding issue positions, candidate qualifications, or the context behind a range of policy proposals, journalists instead tend to cast these features of the political terrain as secondary to a focus on who's ahead and who's behind in winning the campaign or policy battle, the generals and lieutenants involved, and the shifting strategies and tactics employed. This dominant narrative is referred to commonly as "horse race journalism," (Patterson, 1977), the "game schema," (Patterson, 1993), or the "strategy frame" (Capella and Jamieson, 1997.)
Horse race journalism focuses almost exclusively on which candidates or players are most adept at gaining power while also undermining the political chances of opponents. "Horse race" is an apt metaphor as much of contemporary political reporting translates easily into the conventions of sports coverage, with a focus on competing political gladiators who survive to campaign another day or who are the first to cross the finish line. Polling and public opinion surveys are a central feature of this political spectacle. In fact they supply the "objective" data for reporters to define who is winning while offering a news peg for offering attributions about the reasons for political success or failure.
The Rise of Horse Race Journalism
Over the past forty years, the rise in horse race journalism has been called by Patterson (1993) the "quiet revolution" in U.S. election reporting. His now classic analysis finds that coverage focusing on the "game schema" that frames elections in terms of strategy and political success rose from 45% of stories sampled in 1960 to more than 80% of stories in 1992. In comparison, coverage focusing on "policy schema," framing elections in terms of policy and leadership, dropped from 50% of coverage in 1960 to just 10% of coverage analyzed in 1992.
Other analyses confirm the contemporary dominance of the horse race interpretation in election coverage. In one study of the 2000 U.S. presidential campaign, strategy coverage accounted for more than 70% of the TV stories at the major news networks (Farnsworth and Lichter, 2003). The most recent available analysis--tracking the first five months of 2007 presidential primary coverage--found that horse race reporting accounted for 63% of print and TV stories analyzed compared to just 15% of coverage that focused on ideas and policy proposals and just 1% of stories that focused on the track records or past public performance of candidates (Pew 2007).
In the U.S. context not only has horse race and strategy come to define elections, the convention also increasingly characterizes coverage of what were originally considered complex and technical policy debates. First observed by Capella and Jamieson (1997) in their analysis of the early 1990s debate over health care reform, when coverage of policy debates have shifted from specialty beats to the political pages, the strategy frame has been tracked as the dominant narrative in reporting of issues as diverse as stem cell research, climate change, food biotechnology, the Human Genome Project, and the teaching of evolution in schools (Nisbet and Huge, 2006).
Reasons for the "Quiet Revolution" in Political Journalism
Horse race journalism is fueled in part by industry trends and organizational imperatives. In a hyper-competitive news environment with a 24 hour news cycle and tight budgets, reporting the complexity of elections and policy debates in terms of the strategic game is simply easier, more efficient, and considered better business practice.
Public opinion surveys are a competitive advantage in the news marketplace; they are even an important part of media organization branding and marketing. Perhaps more importantly, polls help fill the demand for "anything new" in a day long coverage cycle while also fitting with trends towards "second hand" rather than primary reporting (Rosenstiel, 2005).
The growth in political polling has helped fuel the rise in horse race coverage. For example, in analyzing trial heat polls between the two major party nominees, Traugott (2005) reports a 900% increase in such polls between 1984 and 2000. In 2004, the total number of trial heat polls remained equivalent to the previous presidential campaign, but there was more of a mix of different types of polls, as several organizations focused specifically on anticipated battleground states.
Rosenstiel (2005) observes that the increase use of tracking polls likely magnifies horse race coverage. In these polls samples of 150-200 respondents are combined across two to three nights allowing journalists to rely on an almost daily diet of "up and down" indicators.
In combination with economic imperatives and the increased availability of polling, horse race coverage also resonates strongly with the informal rules of political reporting. American journalists pay heavy attention to scandals, corruption, or false and deceptive claims but because of their preferred objectivity norm, they typically shy away in coverage from actively assessing whether one side in an election or policy debate has the better set of candidates, ideas, or proposed solutions. With a preference for partisan neutrality, it is much easier for journalists to default to the strategic game interpretation. Issue positions and policy debates are part of this coverage but very much secondary to a dominant narrative of politics that turns on conflict, advancement, and personal ambition (Patterson, 1993; 2005).
Rosenstiel (2005) connects the objectivity norm to the new "synthetic journalism" that further emphasizes poll driven horse race coverage. In a hyper-competitive 24 hour news cycle there is increasing demand for journalists to try to synthesize into their own coverage what has already been reported by other news organizations. This might include new insider strategy, the latest negative attack, or a perceived embarrassing gaffe or mistake. The need to synthesize critical or damaging information runs up against the preferred norm of objectivity while also providing potential fodder for claims of liberal bias.
Polls, however, help insulate journalists from such claims since they provide the "objective" organizing device by which to comment and analyze news that is being reported by other outlets. For example, if a new survey indicates that a candidate is slipping in public popularity, the reporting of the poll's results provides the subsequent opening for journalists to then attribute the opinion shift to a recent negative ad, allegation, or political slip up. As news organizations rely more and more on public opinion surveys and tracking polls as branding devices and news pegs, a focus on horse race coverage and synthetic journalism is only likely to be magnified.
Frankovic (2005) observes a dramatic rise not just in the reporting of specific poll results, but importantly, in terms of general rhetorical references to "polls say" or "polls show," with close to 9,000 such general mentions at newspapers in 2004 compared to roughly 3,000 such mentions in 1992. This reliance on the authority of polls adds perceived precision and objectivity to journalists' coverage. According to Frankovic, this rhetorical innovation in reporting allows journalists to make independent attributions about candidate success or failure without relying on the consensus of experts. Moreover, she argues that the heightened emphasis on "the polls" alters the criteria by which audiences think about the candidates, shifting from a focus on issue positions and qualifications to that of "electability."
Of course, an accent on strategy, ambition, poll position, and insider intrigue is not the only way that political reporters can translate an election campaign or policy debate for audiences. Journalists, for example, could alternatively emphasize issue positions; the choice between distinct sets of ideas and ideologies; the context for policy proposals, or the credentials and governing record of candidates and parties (Kerbel, Apee, and Ross, 2000). Yet in comparison to the horse race, the storytelling potential of each of these alternative ways of defining what's newsworthy in politics is perceived as more limited. In fact, according to the norms that dominate most political news beats, once the issue positions, credentials, background, or track record of a candidate is first covered, they are quickly considered "old news" (Patterson, 1993).
Reasons for Concern about Horse Race Journalism
Scholars have raised multiple concerns about the impacts of horse race journalism. Patterson (1993; 2005) and others fear that the focus on the game over substance undermines the ability of citizens to learn from coverage and to reach informed decisions in elections or about policy debates. Capella and Jamieson (1997) argue that the strategy frame portrays candidates and elected officials as self-interested and poll driven opportunists, a portrayal that they show promotes cynicism and distrust among audiences. Farnsworth and Licther (2006) go so far as to suggest that horse race coverage in the primary elections results in a self-reinforcing bandwagon effect with positive horse race coverage improving a candidate's standing in subsequent polls and negative horse-race coverage hurting a candidate's poll standings. Their observation fits with what many political commentators and candidates complain about, that over-reliance on polling narrows news attention and emphasis to just two to three candidates while over-emphasizing perceived electability as a criteria for voters. In this sense, horse race coverage unduly promotes the media as a central institution in deciding electoral outcomes.
In terms of horse race coverage of policy debates, other than failing to provide context and background for audiences, Nisbet and Huge (2006) argue that the strategy frame's preferred "he said, she said" style leads to a false balance in the treatment of technical issues such as climate change or the teaching evolution, issues where there is clear expert consensus. Polling experts offer other reservations. For example, Frankovic (2005) and others warn that over-reliance on horse race journalism and polling potentially undermines public trust in the accuracy and validity of polling.
Capella, J. N & Jamieson, K.H. (1997). Spiral of Cynicism: The Press and the Public Good. New York: Oxford University Press.
Farnsworth, S.J. and Lichter, S.R. (2003). The Nightly News Nightmare: Network Television's Coverage of US Presidential Elections, 1988-2000. Rowman & Littlefield.
Farnsworth, S.J. and Lichter, S.R. (2006). The 2004 New Hampshire Democratic Primary and Network News. Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 11, 1, 53-63.
Frankovic, K. A. (2005). Reporting "the polls" in 2004. Public Opinion Quarterly, 69, 682-697.
Nisbet, M.C. & Huge, M (2006). Attention cycles and frames in the plant biotechnology debate: Managing power and participation through the press/policy connection. Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 11, 2, 3-40.
Patterson, T. E. (1977). The 1976 horserace. The Wilson Quarterly 1: 73-79.
Patterson, T.E. (1993). Out of Order. New York: Knopf.
Patterson, T.E. (2005). Of Polls, Mountains: U.S. Journalists and Their Use of Election Surveys. Public Opinion Quarterly 69, 5, 716-724.
Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism (2007, Oct. 29). The Invisible Primary. Press Release and Report.
Rosenstiel, T. (2005). Political Polling and the New Media Culture: A Case of More Being Less. Public Opinion Quarterly 69, 698-715.
Traugott, M. (2005). The Accuracy of the National Preelection Polls in the 2004 Presidential Election. Public Opinion Quarterly, 65, 5, 642-654.
Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain
Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (see further below).
However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent.
Ash beds of North America
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain
This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.
The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years.
This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas.
About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone.
It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota.
The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera.
It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.
This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years.
The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed.
Mount St Helens
The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.
The difference between quakes and faults
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain
So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least.
Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.
What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago.
As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is only 5 percent to 15 percent molten. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.
Strange Maps #1041
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
Measuring a person's movements and poses, smart clothes could be used for athletic training, rehabilitation, or health-monitoring.
In recent years there have been exciting breakthroughs in wearable technologies, like smartwatches that can monitor your breathing and blood oxygen levels.
But what about a wearable that can detect how you move as you do a physical activity or play a sport, and could potentially even offer feedback on how to improve your technique?
And, as a major bonus, what if the wearable were something you'd actually already be wearing, like a shirt of a pair of socks?
That's the idea behind a new set of MIT-designed clothing that use special fibers to sense a person's movement via touch. Among other things, the researchers showed that their clothes can actually determine things like if someone is sitting, walking, or doing particular poses.
The group from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) says that their clothes could be used for athletic training and rehabilitation. With patients' permission, they could even help passively monitor the health of residents in assisted-care facilities and determine if, for example, someone has fallen or is unconscious.
The researchers have developed a range of prototypes, from socks and gloves to a full vest. The team's "tactile electronics" use a mix of more typical textile fibers alongside a small amount of custom-made functional fibers that sense pressure from the person wearing the garment.
According to CSAIL graduate student Yiyue Luo, a key advantage of the team's design is that, unlike many existing wearable electronics, theirs can be incorporated into traditional large-scale clothing production. The machine-knitted tactile textiles are soft, stretchable, breathable, and can take a wide range of forms.
"Traditionally it's been hard to develop a mass-production wearable that provides high-accuracy data across a large number of sensors," says Luo, lead author on a new paper about the project that is appearing in this month's edition of Nature Electronics. "When you manufacture lots of sensor arrays, some of them will not work and some of them will work worse than others, so we developed a self-correcting mechanism that uses a self-supervised machine learning algorithm to recognize and adjust when certain sensors in the design are off-base."
The team's clothes have a range of capabilities. Their socks predict motion by looking at how different sequences of tactile footprints correlate to different poses as the user transitions from one pose to another. The full-sized vest can also detect the wearers' pose, activity, and the texture of the contacted surfaces.
The authors imagine a coach using the sensor to analyze people's postures and give suggestions on improvement. It could also be used by an experienced athlete to record their posture so that beginners can learn from them. In the long term, they even imagine that robots could be trained to learn how to do different activities using data from the wearables.
"Imagine robots that are no longer tactilely blind, and that have 'skins' that can provide tactile sensing just like we have as humans," says corresponding author Wan Shou, a postdoc at CSAIL. "Clothing with high-resolution tactile sensing opens up a lot of exciting new application areas for researchers to explore in the years to come."
The paper was co-written by MIT professors Antonio Torralba, Wojciech Matusik, and Tomás Palacios, alongside PhD students Yunzhu Li, Pratyusha Sharma, and Beichen Li; postdoc Kui Wu; and research engineer Michael Foshey.
The work was partially funded by Toyota Research Institute.
How imagining the worst case scenario can help calm anxiety.
- Stoicism is the philosophy that nothing about the world is good or bad in itself, and that we have control over both our judgments and our reactions to things.
- It is hardest to control our reactions to the things that come unexpectedly.
- By meditating every day on the "worst case scenario," we can take the sting out of the worst that life can throw our way.
Are you a worrier? Do you imagine nightmare scenarios and then get worked up and anxious about them? Does your mind get caught in a horrible spiral of catastrophizing over even the smallest of things? Worrying, particularly imagining the worst case scenario, seems to be a natural part of being human and comes easily to a lot of us. It's awful, perhaps even dangerous, when we do it.
But, there might just be an ancient wisdom that can help. It involves reframing this attitude for the better, and it comes from Stoicism. It's called "premeditation," and it could be the most useful trick we can learn.
Broadly speaking, Stoicism is the philosophy of choosing your judgments. Stoics believe that there is nothing about the universe that can be called good or bad, valuable or valueless, in itself. It's we who add these values to things. As Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Our minds color the things we encounter as being "good" or "bad," and given that we control our minds, we therefore have control over all of our negative feelings.
Put another way, Stoicism maintains that there's a gap between our experience of an event and our judgment of it. For instance, if someone calls you a smelly goat, you have an opportunity, however small and hard it might be, to pause and ask yourself, "How will I judge this?" What's more, you can even ask, "How will I respond?" We have power over which thoughts we entertain and the final say on our actions. Today, Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
Helping you practice StoicismCredit: Robyn Beck via Getty Images
One of the principal fathers of ancient Stoicism was the Roman statesmen, Seneca, who argued that the unexpected and unforeseen blows of life are the hardest to take control over. The shock of a misfortune can strip away the power we have to choose our reaction. For instance, being burglarized feels so horrible because we had felt so safe at home. A stomach ache, out of the blue, is harder than a stitch thirty minutes into a run. A sudden bang makes us jump, but a firework makes us smile. Fell swoops hurt more than known hardships.
What could possibly go wrong?
So, how can we resolve this? Seneca suggests a Stoic technique called "premeditatio malorum" or "premeditation." At the start of every day, we ought to take time to indulge our anxious and catastrophizing mind. We should "rehearse in the mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck." We should meditate on the worst things that could happen: your partner will leave you, your boss will fire you, your house will burn down. Maybe, even, you'll die.
This might sound depressing, but the important thing is that we do not stop there.
Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
The Stoic also rehearses how they will react to these things as they come up. For instance, another Stoic (and Roman Emperor) Marcus Aurelius asks us to imagine all the mean, rude, selfish, and boorish people we'll come across today. Then, in our heads, we script how we'll respond when we meet them. We can shrug off their meanness, smile at their rudeness, and refuse to be "implicated in what is degrading." Thus prepared, we take control again of our reactions and behavior.
The Stoics cast themselves into the darkest and most desperate of conditions but then realize that they can and will endure. With premeditation, the Stoic is prepared and has the mental vigor necessary to take the blow on the chin and say, "Yep, l can deal with this."
Catastrophizing as a method of mental inoculation
Seneca wrote: "In times of peace, the soldier carries out maneuvers." This is also true of premeditation, which acts as the war room or training ground. The agonizing cut of the unexpected is blunted by preparedness. We can prepare the mind for whatever trials may come, in just the same way we can prepare the body for some endurance activity. The world can throw nothing as bad as that which our minds have already imagined.
Stoicism teaches us to embrace our worrying mind but to embrace it as a kind of inoculation. With a frown over breakfast, try to spend five minutes of your day deliberately catastrophizing. Get your anti-anxiety battle plan ready and then face the world.
A study on charity finds that reminding people how nice it feels to give yields better results than appealing to altruism.