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What horse race journalists have to say about election reporting


The election is now five short months away, and you may be noticing something familiar creeping back into the news - polls - data, statistics and, of course, political reporters endlessly parsing all those polls and data and statistics, speculating who's up and who's down at any given moment. We are talking horse-race journalism. And reporter Annie Aguiar wrote an article for Poynter in which she had a little fun with the practice by asking actual horse-race journalists what they make of horse-race journalism. Annie Aguiar, welcome.

ANNIE AGUIAR: Thank you so much. Happy to be here.

KELLY: So to be clear, the idea here is you were calling up beat reporters who cover races, like the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness. How did you come up with this idea?

AGUIAR: Well, I'm relatively early in my career, but this is a term in that glossary of obscure journalism words that I heard over and over again in college as just kind of a general, you know, glowing do-not-do sign. But I really wanted to hear more a bit about the term specifically and whether or not it was kind of a misnomer from the people who, day in and day out, are at horse races.

KELLY: You just described the glowing do-not-do sign that, for college journalists, hangs around the term horse-race journalism. And, you know, it does get a bad rep for all the breathless focus on the odds of an election over the actual stakes of an election. So when you talk to real horse-race journalists, do they see the term as negative?

AGUIAR: No one's saying, how dare they call it horse-race journalism. The reporters I spoke to - they get that it's a general label, going from that, you know, it's a race. There are parallels. But when you speak to people who are covering horse racing as a world, as an industry, there are real lessons to be learned for any reporter covering any sort of beat - the need for that context, the need for, you know, not discounting different figures based on popular narratives. It all goes much deeper than he's coming around the bend.

KELLY: So let's dig in on some of the parallels and some of the lessons that real horse-race beat reporters feel like their political brethren might benefit from learning. What did they tell you feels the same?

AGUIAR: I think the parallel - the big one that comes to mind is wrangling with these high-stakes political odds. For actual horse races, you have the kind of infamous infographic takes on election night that the previous election nights have shown us is maybe not a perfect reflection of what's really going on here, but that insistence upon the number-crunching and what we need to keep in mind to get it right is a big parallel I found here.

Joe Drape from The New York Times, who has been covering horse racing for a long time - he told me that his definition of horse-race journalism is, you drink mint juleps, you watch a two-minute race, and you have 45 minutes to have an epic in miniature, you know?


KELLY: That sounds a lot better than covering a political campaign, I have to say.

AGUIAR: They should just roll out mint juleps.

KELLY: Indeed. One huge difference that occurs to me is real horse-race journalists cannot interview the central characters in their stories because they're horses. Does that change how they source a story - they have to kind of work around the protagonists that they're trying to cover?

AGUIAR: Definitely. Drape also mentioned to me, like, hey, the horse can't talk. But I will say, you know, we can say the horse can't talk, but politicians can. But in the last couple of years, a couple of election cycles, candidates are continuing to limit, you know, traditional press access. So maybe sometimes it is the horse can't talk. But in this case, the horse is choosing to not talk.

KELLY: Choosing not to talk. You also write about real horse-race journalists and the way that they go out of their way to focus on the underdog - or I guess the dark horse would be the better term in this particular case - that political reporters might learn something from that. What did they tell you?

AGUIAR: No, definitely. Everyone I spoke to for this independently came up - of this year's series of races in the Triple Crown, we had two different final finishes with a win from a horse that people really were not expecting.

KELLY: This - you're talking about how all eyes were on Mystik Dan...


KELLY: ...Who was going for the Triple Crown, and then it all fell apart in the Preakness.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Here's Mystik Dan tipping to the outside, but still in front is Seize the Grey. Seize the Grey - oh, Jaime Torres seized the day to win the...

AGUIAR: Yes. Mystik Dan completely blown out of the water by Seize the Grey - but then this weekend's Belmont Stakes, we had yet another long shot - this horse Dornoch that was not on anyone's kind of short list for the winners. If you're neglecting these kind of lesser-considered horses in horse racing, you're not doing a good job of covering the sport.

KELLY: That's reporter Annie Aguiar. Her piece for Poynter is headlined, "What Do Horse Race Journalists Think Of 'Horse Race Journalism'?" Thank you.

AGUIAR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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