Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell’s column this week addresses her crusade to increase the Post‘s commitment to substantive coverage of the 2008 presidential election campaign. Howell last addressed the topic in a February column, having launched a project to analyze the paper’s campaign coverage in November.

Her findings, kept in a publicly-accessible spreadsheet, indicate that around twice as many Post stories about the election have focused on the political horse race than have focused on the candidate’s stances on issues or personal histories. I would guess that that ratio would be about the same at any national news outlet (except cable news, which must have a much much higher proportion of horse race coverage), but it would feel nice to imagine that Post felt some kind of special obligation as the county’s leading political news outlet to cover the presidential election as a substantive event with real moral consequences rather than an exercise in strategy.

Howell expresses more tolerance than I feel for some amount of horse-race reporting in the Post (or inside-baseball reporting, or whatever sports metaphor you prefer), arguing that “it’s important to know what is happening in the campaigns.” I’m not actually convinced that that’s true—it’s hard for me imagine what good it will do me as a voter and citizen to know which campaign advisers are hired or fired or how a campaign plans to position its candidate. Such stories might sometimes offer glimpses into a candidate’s character, I guess, but that is rarely their focus and I can’t imagine any good being served by their incredible prevalence, particularly when that prevalence is at the expense of substantive reporting.

And while I’m applauding attempts to shame serious news outlets into issue-oriented election coverage, the Columbia Journalism Review blogs do an excellent job of tracking the most egregious examples of horse race coverage and drawing attention to good, substantive political reporting.

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