A well-deserved Catch to Ezra Klein for the final item in his post “The 9 most important facts about the 2014 election” — that local elections are hugely underappreciated.
The biggest bias in election coverage isn’t towards Republicans or Democrats or even towards conflict and sensationalism. It’s towards national elections rather than local elections. This is partly a question of resources: it’s a lot easier for a news organization to cover national politics than local politics. And part of it is that the media covers elections as the culmination of the bloodsport of American politics, and local elections don’t really count towards that.
But insofar as elections are about making and changing the laws that affect people’s lives, local (and state) elections are wildly underemphasized.
There are two ways to go with this. One is simply to recognize the importance of local politics. National politics are important, of course: They involve war and peace, the economy, federal taxes, and plenty of other issues that have very immediate effects on everyday life. (Hey, new parents: Do you enjoy those curb cuts on the sidewalk that make it easier when you’re pushing a stroller? You can thank Bob Dole and Tom Harkin … at least in areas where state or local government didn’t already mandate the improved sidewalks) But people don’t realize that local politics help determine stuff such as what happens in the schools, what neighborhoods look like or the mechanics of starting a business. And taxes, too, as Klein points out.
But he’s also correct about media bias that favors national elections rather than local ones. People who have studied the question have mostly failed to find significant partisan biases within the “neutral” media (of course, there’s plenty of Republican bias at Fox News and there’s Democratic bias in MSNBC prime time talk shows, but we’re talking about the news pages of major newspapers, or network news shows). But that hardly means there’s no bias. There are all sorts of rules that the “neutral” media use to determine what stories to cover and how to cover them, and that’s a strong bias.
What makes a story worth covering? What readers and viewers want (and what editors and producers think they want) counts. Ratings matter. Incentives for individual reporters matter, too: reporters always want more prominent placement for their stories. Norms of the profession count, too. For example, once beats are established, the stories covered by those beats are going to be covered; everything else has more trouble getting noticed. Norms and training also inform decisions about what is “important.”
All of this works against coverage of state and national elections. Hey, I’m as guilty as anyone, because within political science, state and local government is a separate subfield from those involving (national) political institutions, and so it’s not something that I pay a lot of attention to, even though I believe it’s important.1
Even if they aren’t driven by partisanship, some of those biases in “neutral” press coverage can wind up having partisan or policy consequences that aren’t neutral at all. Forty or 50 years ago, for example, anyone advocating equality for gays and lesbians was regarded by the media as weird, extreme, and not to be taken serious. That gradually shifted and eventually (and very recently) completely reversed, so that now it’s those who oppose equality who are regarded as weird and extreme. Why? Because one press norm is “mainstream” bias, and anything that is perceived out of the mainstream isn’t taken seriously.
At any rate: Pay attention to state and local elections, and … Nice catch!
1 Of course, there are people who study parties who also study state and local politics. It just so happens that I don’t.
[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]