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.

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