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“Not the odds, but the stakes.”
Those are the six words that make up a mantra New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has evangelized across the news industry over the last several months. With less than a year until the 2024 elections, Rosen has been imploring newsrooms to organize their campaign coverage around the enormous stakes of the presidential contest — not the horse race.
“The stakes, of course, mean the stakes for American democracy,” Rosen told me by phone Tuesday. “The stakes are what might happen as a result of the election.”
It is not uncommon for critics of the news media to skewer political coverage for focusing too much on who is up and who is down, instead of placing an emphasis on policy and the effect a victor might have on the world. Such criticism is even more pronounced and pointed during the heat of a contested election cycle.
But, heading into 2024, the state of affairs is far more dire than usual. After all, these are not normal times. With an insurrection-inciting, twice-impeached, and four-time indicted candidate on the ballot, democracy is very much on the line. As Rosen told me, “There is an urgency to it now.” Homing in on what the U.S. could look like during — and after — a second Donald Trump presidency is crucial, especially as the Republican frontrunner echoes the language of authoritarian leaders to reveal his plans for a second term.
Needless to say, sounding the alarm on Trump’s disturbing conduct is more difficult than engaging in horse race coverage. Focusing on the polls can help news organizations dodge thorny issues, such as Trump’s use of vile rhetoric. That allows them, perhaps, to avoid the perception among some in the public that they’re unfairly biased.
“And [horse race coverage] is an easy way to make a complicated subject come alive for audiences,” Rosen added. “It creates excitement of a kind. Suspense. These things make it a formidable adversary.”
That’s not to say all coverage of polling and political strategy is misguided, Rosen stressed. Simply, it should not be the primary focus for news organizations, given what is on the line come next November.
“I don’t mean to say that news of the horse race is some sort of sin or poison that has dot be driven from the news,” Rosen told me. “Rather, that the horse race should not be the model for how you design your coverage. It should not be the organizing principle of your campaign coverage.”
There are some signs that news organizations are following such a blueprint as they cover the 2024 race, with major outlets starting to report on Trump’s alarming plans, should he be re-elected. The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Associated Press have all published detailed stories in recent weeks on his twisted fantasies. On cable news, CNN and MSNBC have run segments on the topic as well.
“We are getting more and more stakes journalism from our national media,” Rosen said. “And that’s an encouraging sign. And I think it is absolutely essential to keep going.”