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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.”