Stop covering politics as a game

“Put simply, journalists’ reliance on this practice is allowing elites to further divide the country, avoid scrutiny, and distract citizens away from thoughtful policy debate on issues that carry real-life consequences.”

If there is one truth about political journalism, it is that the game frame dominates. Politics is covered as a competition between left versus right, Democrat versus Republican; a battle of individuals and political factions, rather than a debate over governing philosophies and policies. For years, political scientists have warned that the practice of covering politics as a strategic game erodes public faith in governmental institutions. And now, with notable brazenness, political elites are exploiting this frame to achieve their own political goals. The loser in this equation is the American public.

In an analysis of election coverage of the 2016 presidential primaries, Harvard’s Shorenstein Center found that 56 percent of election news was dedicated to stories of the competitive game, 33 percent to stories about the campaign process, and only 11 percent to substantive policy-based concerns.

11 percent.

What started almost three decades ago as an observation about how elections are covered as if they were games has become the dominant story of how news covers just about everything. Americans in 2017 are instructed to think of all aspects of political life as a game: presidential elections, congressional elections, debates around tax reform, health care, foreign policy, national security, and climate change.

So prevalent is the language of competition and partisan strategy, in fact, that it has even come to dominate how journalists report on our least partisan institutions, the courts. Soon-to-be-published research by Matthew Hitt and Kathleen Searles shows that news increasingly uses the game frame as the orienting narrative that guides reporting of Supreme Court decisions. (The “5-4 Bush v. Gore” story was just the beginning).

Concerns about the game frame are old news. Harvard’s Tom Patterson was fretting about this 25 years ago in 1992’s Out of Order. In it, he wrote, “the dominant schema for the reporter is structured around the notion that politics is a strategic game.”

Journalists cover politics this way in part because it’s how they think about politics — as strategy and competition between individuals and opposing factions. But talking about politics as a game is also a way for journalists to pull back the curtain to show (or should I say construct) the behind-the-scenes machinery of politics. Game frames purport to give “the inside scoop” while playing into journalism’s perceived need for the dramatic and personalized (à la Lance Bennett).

As BuzzFeed’s Eve Fairbanks writes in her scathing critique of this politics-as-game genre pushed and perfected by Mark Halperin, the now-disgraced former political reporter, “the point at which politics becomes hard to understand is the point at which it is no longer politics but just competitive play, a Risk-style board game. Once there is only a handful of self-qualified players, we no longer qualify as a democracy, or perhaps even a polity.” To cover political life as a game played between elites tells citizens that politics is a spectacle to be watched, not an activity to be participated in. Such coverage creates what scholar Bob Entman refers to as a “democracy without citizens.”

In Spiral of Cynicism, Joseph Cappella and Kathleen Hall Jamieson document the extensive effects of game-framing on political cynicism. They explain how the game narrative actually restructures our cognitive schemas related to politics such that our interpretation of subsequent political information occurs through this lens as well. This explains the devastating findings of the aforementioned study by Hitt and Searles. Not only does their work reveal that journalists are increasingly framing SCOTUS rulings as a game — it also shows that exposure to game frames reduces support for individual SCOTUS decisions, and the increase in game frames over time has harmed public support for the court as an institution.

The game frame and the party cues that accompany it also matter in terms of shaping how able and motivated our citizens are to think critically about policies that actually affect them. Work by Bert Bakker and Yphtach Lelkes shows that when information is simply embedded with partisan cues — “Republicans support this, Democrats support that,” even our most thoughtful partisans rely on these party cues to make their decisions, instead of on the quality of the arguments presented.

Neither this journalistic practice nor its cognitive implications are new. What is new, perhaps, is the extent to which politicians, interest groups, and political parties are actively capitalizing on the game frame that they know dominates how news stories will be told. In a deliberate attempt to activate tribal identities and mobilize their bases (and to keep details of domestic and foreign policy in the shadows), political leaders — President Trump chief among them — work to inject news coverage with “us versus them” signals to guarantee the story will be told their way.

Put simply, journalists’ reliance on this practice is allowing elites to further divide the country, avoid scrutiny, and distract citizens away from thoughtful policy debate on issues that carry real-life consequences.

It’s time for the game frame to die.

The challenge, of course, is in envisioning and articulating an alternative news frame that is not preoccupied with stories of warring ideological factions.

Assuming news narratives need protagonists, who will become the protagonist if the stories are not told in terms of Democrats versus Republicans, or Trump versus Clinton?

I am reminded of Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s response on CBS news with Dan Rather in 1996, following a particularly substantive presidential debate between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole.

Rather, entrenched in the game-frame, asked Jamieson, “Who won tonight?”

Jamieson replied, “The American people.”

Maybe “the American people” can finally become the protagonist in 2018.

Dannagal G. Young is an associate professor of communication at the University of Delaware.

Sam Sanders   Shine the light on ourselves

Will Sommer   The year local media gets conservative

Aron Pilhofer   We can’t leave the business to the business side any more

Neha Gandhi   Filler killers

Daniel Trielli   The rich get richer, the poor scramble

Matt Boggie   The intellectual equivalent of the Dead Sea

Joanne McNeil   Gatekeeping the gatekeepers

Jacqui Cheng   Retailers move into content

Alastair Coote   The year of self-improvement

Matt Thompson   Here come the attention managers

Tracie Powell   The muting of underserved voices

Juliette De Maeyer   A responsible press criticism

Vivian Schiller   Pivot to tomorrow

Julia B. Chan   Looking for loyalty in all the right places

Sally Lehrman   Trust comes first

Emma Carew Grovum   Newsroom culture becomes a priority

Alfred Hermida   Going beyond mobile-first

Joyce Barnathan   It will be harder to bury the news

Evie Nagy   Pivot to mobile video frustration

Andrew Haeg   The year journalists become relationship builders

Michael Kuntz   The only pivot that might work

Kyle Ellis   Let’s build our way out of this

Errin Haines   At the ballot, it’s time to count black women

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   The Snapchat scenario and the risk of more closed platforms

Eric Nuzum   Beyond the narrative arc

Jim Brady   With the people, not just of the people

Francesco Marconi   The year of machine-to-machine journalism

Cory Haik   Suffering from realness, pivoting to impact

Ray Soto   VR reaches the next level

Feli Sánchez   The year for guerrilla user research

Ståle Grut   Reclaiming audience interaction from social networks

Tamar Charney   We get serious about algorithms

Ruth Palmer   Risks will grow for news subjects — especially minorities

Michelle Garcia   Navigating journalistic transparency

Andrew Ramsammy   The year ownership mattered

Jassim Ahmad   Thriving on change

Rodney Gibbs   Tech workers turn to journalism

Basile Simon   We need better career paths for news nerds

Damon Krukowski   Reviving the alt-weekly soul

Steve Grove   The midterms are an opportunity

John Keefe   Scooped by AI

Mary Meehan   Real lives are at stake in rural areas

Kathleen McElroy   Building a news video experience native to mobile

Carlos Martínez de la Serna   The new journalism commons

P. Kim Bui   The reckoning is only beginning

Matt Carlson   Attacks on the press will get worse

Usha Sahay   Wallets get opened

Eric Ulken   The year local publishers get smart(er) about change

Marcela Donini and Thiago Herdy   Collaboration is the way forward for Brazilian journalism

Kinsey Wilson   Facebook and Google: Help out or pay up

Kim Fox   Audience teams diversify their approach

David Skok   Finding an information-life balance

Debra Adams Simmons   And a woman shall lead them

Claire Wardle   Disinformation gets worse

Cristina Wilson   The year of the Instagram Story

Dheerja Kaur   Fun with subscription products

Jim Moroney   Newspapers have to be good enough for readers to pay for

Niketa Patel   Live journalism comes of age

Almar Latour   Conquering calm

Edward Roussel   Eyes, ears, and brains

Charo Henríquez   Training is an investment, not an expense

Mandy Velez   texting is lit rn, fam

Carrie Brown-Smith   Transparency finally takes off

Mira Lowe   The year of the local watchdog

Tim Carmody   Watch out for Spotify

Kristen Muller   The year of the voter

José Zamora   Revenue-first journalism

Nicholas Diakopoulos   Fortifying social media from automated inauthenticity

Betsy O'Donovan and Melody Kramer   Skepticism and narcissism

Borja Echevarría   TV goes digital, digital goes TV

Andrew Losowsky   The year of resilience

Renée Kaplan   The year of quiet adjustments (shhh)

Adam Thomas   Sharing is caring: The year of the mentor

Dannagal G. Young   Stop covering politics as a game

Hannah Cassius   The year of the echo-chamber escapists

Doris Truong   Computer vision vs. the Internet vigilantes

C.W. Anderson   The social media apocalypse

Manoush Zomorodi   Self-help as a publishing strategy

Emily Goligoski   Looking beyond news for inspiration

Trushar Barot   The Jio-fication of India

Jennifer Choi   Standing up for us and for each other

Laura E. Davis   Writing answers before you know the question

Marie Gilot   No assholes allowed

Nikki Usher   The year of The Washington Post

Jesse Holcomb   Information disorder, coming to a congressional district near you

Sam Ford   The year of investing in processes

Mariana Moura Santos   Think local, act global

Justin Kosslyn   The year journalists become digital security experts

Susie Banikarim   R.I.P. Pivot to Video (2017–2017)

Sydette Harry   Listen to your corner and watch for the hook

Jake Levine   The return to now

Jennifer Coogan   The future is female

Vanessa K. DeLuca   Women’s voices take center stage

Corey Ford   The empire strikes back

Frédéric Filloux   External forces

Jarrod Dicker   Honesty in advertising

Julia Beizer   A longer view on the pivot

Taylor Lorenz   Social and media will split

Amy King   Let’s amplify visual voice

Lucas Graves   From algorithms to institutions

Monique Judge   Letting black women tell their own stories

Cindy Royal   Your journalism curriculum is obsolete

Ariana Tobin   Too tired to tap

Pete Brown   Push alerts, personalized

Tanya Cordrey   Finally, the seeds of radical reinvention

Jessica Parker Gilbert   Design connects storytelling and strategy

Joanne Lipman   Journalists inventing revenue streams

Sarah Marshall   Loyalty as the key performance indicator

Felix Salmon   Covering bitcoin while owning bitcoin

Alan Soon   The rise of start of psychographic, micro-targeted media

Kawandeep Virdee   Zines had it right all along

Rubina Madan Fillion   Unlocking the potential of AI

Federica Cherubini   The rise of bridge roles in news organizations

Caitria O'Neill   The new court of public opinion

L. Gordon Crovitz   Serving readers over advertisers

Alexios Mantzarlis   Moving fake news research out of the lab

Mariano Blejman   News games rule

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams   Women of color will reclaim and monetize our time

Richard J. Tofel   The platforms’ power demands more reporters’ attention

Jennifer Brandel and Mónica Guzmán   The editorial meeting of the future

Mike Caulfield   Refactoring media literacy for the networked age

Christopher Meighan   Passive partnership is in the rearview

Caitlin Thompson   Podcasting models mature and diversify

Mary Walter-Brown   Show a little vulnerability

Brian Lam   Sketchy ethics around product reviews

Dan Newman   A return to trust

Rick Berke   Value is the watchword

Jamie Mottram   From pageviews to t-shirts

Zizi Papacharissi   Women come back

Nathalie Malinarich   Peak push

Sara M. Watson   Feeds will open up to new user-determined filters

Raney Aronson-Rath   Transparency is the antidote to fake news

Raju Narisetti   Mirror, mirror on the wall

Yvonne Leow   The rise of video messaging

Lanre Akinola   Making noise is not a strategy

Bill Keller   A growing turn to philanthropy

S. Mitra Kalita   The arc of news and audience

Umbreen Bhatti   The trust problem isn’t new

An Xiao Mina   Memes and visuals come to the fore

Amie Ferris-Rotman   More female reporters abroad (please)

Nicholas Quah   Stop talking trash about young people

Craig Newmark   Working together toward sustainable solutions

Dan Shanoff   You down with OTT? (Yeah, DTC)

Burt Herman   Things get real

Michelle Ferrier   The year of the great reckoning

Alice Antheaume   Are you fluent in AI?

Nancy Watzman   Know thy TV

Paul Ford   Go global

Mario García   Storytelling finally adapts to mobile

Jared Newman   Venture funding and digital news don’t mix

Miguel Castro   The arrival of the impact producer

Luke O'Neil   The end is already here

Molly de Aguiar   Good journalism won’t be enough

Mi-Ai Parrish   Blockchain and trust

Hossein Derakhshan   Television has won

Heather Bryant   Building the ecosystems for collaboration

Amy Webb   Listen to weak signals

Sue Schardt   Jump the niche

Rachel Schallom   Better design helps differentiate opinion and news

Rodney Benson   Better, less read, and less trusted

Corey Johnson   The pro-fact resistance

Nushin Rashidian   Publishers seek ad dollar alternatives

Lam Thuy Vo   Breaking free from the tyranny of the loudest

Ernst-Jan Pfauth   Publishing less to give readers more

Matt DeRienzo   A recession, then a collapse

Monika Bauerlein   The firehose of falsehood

Millie Tran and Stine Bauer Dahlberg   (Hint: It’s about your brand)

Helen Havlak   Keywords, not publishers, power the world’s biggest feeds

Valérie Bélair-Gagnon   Seeking trust in fragmented spaces

Rachel Davis Mersey   AI, with real smarts

Imaeyen Ibanga   Longform video leads the way

Tanzina Vega   It’s time for media companies to #PassTheMic

Elizabeth Jensen   Show your work

Kelsey Proud   No, no, no

Pablo Boczkowski   The rise of skeptical reading

Pia Frey   Address users as individuals