How Search Will Save American Democracy

While we're all familiar with search as an advertising medium, we're less aware of search as a democratizing force. That's why I'd like to devote this week's column to how search will change the nature of American election coverage -- putting the national campaign discourse into the hands of voters, and out of the hands of the press.

But first, a quick lesson on horse racing.

The Horse Race
U.S. news outlets tend to focus more on the campaign itself than on where candidates stand on real issues. They'll spend more time on who's up in the polls and who's raised the most money, and less on how candidates feel about social security or the U.S. presence in Iraq.

Media critics call this "horse-race" coverage -- it's coverage of who will be first to the campaign finish line. A Pew News Index study recently found that nine out of 10 stories covering presidential election '08 are horse-race pieces.

According to most media critics, horse race coverage is all about packaging. In the battle for media consumer attention, it makes more sense to portray the campaigns as a long-term contest along the lines of the NBA playoffs than as a complex, potentially boring referendum on U.S. policies.

At the same time, the news media need to play to common denominators. One person's vote-changing issue may be irrelevant to another, and so news outlets run a risk of losing audience attention by focusing on any one issue for too long. It's much safer to focus on the election itself -- the common denominator among everyone who's following the campaigns.

The result is that Americans know more about the election than about how candidates might actually perform on the job. If you're interested in creating an informed democracy, that isn't good news.

The Democracy of Search
Of course, the only issues that voters are inherently interested in are the issues that they consider vote-deciding. The news outlets have simply crafted the horse race into a real issue as way to gain viewership.

That's where search comes in. As anyone who's ever built out a keyword list can tell you, it's the searcher who sets the terms of discussion on every search. And anyone who's compiled such a list can also tell you that every searcher is looking for something unique.

That means that, when voters search, they're bound to search based on the issues that matter to them most. Voters who are concerned about Iraq will search for the candidates' stances on Iraq. Voters concerned with social security will seek the candidates' stances around that issue. And again, there's no reason why voters should be inherently concerned with the polls that the news media have created to keep viewers entertained. And so to keep searching voters happy, news outlets will need to provide far more than generalized information on who's winning or losing. They'll need to provide genuinely issue-focused election coverage.

Of course, there's less of a reason for news outlets to provide horse race coverage to the searching population. Searchers are already interested in the topic they're researching, and so there's no need to draw them in further with watered-down packaging.

To sum up: as more voters learn about elections through search, the news outlets have an incentive to provide more news coverage of the issues that matter to voters -- and a less serious incentive to provide horse-race coverage.

We're Getting There
Of course, we're not there yet: again, 90% of this year's election coverage has been horse-race pieces. And it seems that major news outlets have yet to fully grasp the importance of search altogether. As I write this, no major news outlet is advertising in Google on the terms "hillary clinton," "mitt romney," "2008 campaign" --  or even "fed interest rates subprime."

But it's only a matter of time before the news outlets will be forced to come up to speed. The Pew Internet and American Life Project reports that, in 2006, "15% of American adults say the Internet was the [source for]... most of their campaign news during the election" --  up from 7% in 2002.  As more Americans turn to the Web for election coverage, search will inevitably become a critical part of the American voting process.

As that happens, the news outlets will be forced to accommodate. We'll see less of a focus on the horse race, and more of a focus on the real issues that matter to voters.

And if that's not a step forward for democracy, I don't know what is



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