20200
P
1
20100
R  E
2
2070
D   I   C
3
2050
T   I   O   N
4
2040
S   F   O   R   J
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2030
O  U  R  N  A  L
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2020
I  S  M  2  0  2  0
7

Clash of Clans: Election Edition

“The overarching stories journalism tells aren’t just descriptive. Like any popular mythology, the reoccurring elements in journalists’ stories help craft the very categories of identity that people use to comprehend themselves and others.”

The 2020 elections will feel momentous for U.S. journalists. Reporting on such a pivotal event calls not just for accurate facts but also for compelling stories that can make those facts meaningful. What overarching narratives will journalists use to frame the heart of the 2020 contest?

For much of the conservative media, the fundamental narrative for 2020 will echo a longstanding motif: pitting Donald Trump, a pugnacious representative of embattled conservatives, up against elite, condescending liberals and leftists. In this story, liberal forces are driven by a contempt for ordinary conservatives and their communities, who they see as so irredeemably flawed that they are unfit to participate in civic life. Critics of conservative media often don’t take this frame seriously, dismissing conservative victimization as only a rhetorical maneuver. But this is a story that resonates on a deeply emotional level for many. Conservative media constantly remind their audiences of liberals and leftists who they say want to shame and humiliate them. Agitating this kind of identity threat can activate a polarizing lens for how they view politics.

Meanwhie, left-of-center news media will be a bit more fractured in their overarching framing. How the protagonist of this story is characterized will depend on the Democratic candidate and her or his campaign. Nonetheless, I think it’s fair to say that much of progressive media will stage 2020 as a battle against reactionary forces. In a country with changing demographics and rising tides of social justice activism, these reactionaries will be depicted as increasingly desperate as they try to protect entrenched hierarchies of power along the lines of race, gender, religion, and other axes.

So what will be the frame deployed by the many journalists who try to eschew an ideological stance? They will also want something dramatic and captivating — but also something that might play with various audiences. A popular and readymade frame will be the battle of “red vs. blue.” But now that we’ve crawled into what some call a post-truth age, with looming constitutional crises, reducing the race to color-soaked electoral maps won’t cut it. The red-state/blue-state trope will likely be intensified and transformed into something grander — something closer to a “clash of political civilizations” narrative. Two political identities will be portrayed as not just holding different policy preferences or values, but tied to fundamentally irreconcilable ways of life — and of understanding reality itself.

That sort of a framing could be harmful. The overarching stories journalism tells aren’t just descriptive. Like any popular mythology, the reoccurring elements in journalists’ stories help craft the very categories of identity that people use to comprehend themselves and others. The red vs. blue tale is compellingly simple, and it makes these two positions appear fixed and natural.

There will also be a growing current of journalism that undercuts this narrative by probing the contingencies that hold these potentially fractious coalitions and political identities together. You could call it the political sociology beat. During and after the 2016 cycle, some journalists intensified their search for new ways of grasping what seemed like a rapidly changing, unpredictable, and unstable political reality. They started to make use of insights from emerging political and social theory — from scholars like Lilliana Mason and Leonie Huddy — to examine diverse social processes that create, maintain, and sometimes transform how people think about their political identity.

In 2020, political sociology reporting will get better. It will be able to tell more complex stories that grapple with challenging puzzles of political identity formation. Unfortunately, as journalism itself divides further into market-segmented niches, this kind of reporting is likely to be found primarily in outlets that target only certain well-educated audiences.

Anthony Nadler is an associate professor of media and communication studies at Ursinus College and author of Making the News Popular.

The 2020 elections will feel momentous for U.S. journalists. Reporting on such a pivotal event calls not just for accurate facts but also for compelling stories that can make those facts meaningful. What overarching narratives will journalists use to frame the heart of the 2020 contest?

For much of the conservative media, the fundamental narrative for 2020 will echo a longstanding motif: pitting Donald Trump, a pugnacious representative of embattled conservatives, up against elite, condescending liberals and leftists. In this story, liberal forces are driven by a contempt for ordinary conservatives and their communities, who they see as so irredeemably flawed that they are unfit to participate in civic life. Critics of conservative media often don’t take this frame seriously, dismissing conservative victimization as only a rhetorical maneuver. But this is a story that resonates on a deeply emotional level for many. Conservative media constantly remind their audiences of liberals and leftists who they say want to shame and humiliate them. Agitating this kind of identity threat can activate a polarizing lens for how they view politics.

Meanwhie, left-of-center news media will be a bit more fractured in their overarching framing. How the protagonist of this story is characterized will depend on the Democratic candidate and her or his campaign. Nonetheless, I think it’s fair to say that much of progressive media will stage 2020 as a battle against reactionary forces. In a country with changing demographics and rising tides of social justice activism, these reactionaries will be depicted as increasingly desperate as they try to protect entrenched hierarchies of power along the lines of race, gender, religion, and other axes.

So what will be the frame deployed by the many journalists who try to eschew an ideological stance? They will also want something dramatic and captivating — but also something that might play with various audiences. A popular and readymade frame will be the battle of “red vs. blue.” But now that we’ve crawled into what some call a post-truth age, with looming constitutional crises, reducing the race to color-soaked electoral maps won’t cut it. The red-state/blue-state trope will likely be intensified and transformed into something grander — something closer to a “clash of political civilizations” narrative. Two political identities will be portrayed as not just holding different policy preferences or values, but tied to fundamentally irreconcilable ways of life — and of understanding reality itself.

That sort of a framing could be harmful. The overarching stories journalism tells aren’t just descriptive. Like any popular mythology, the reoccurring elements in journalists’ stories help craft the very categories of identity that people use to comprehend themselves and others. The red vs. blue tale is compellingly simple, and it makes these two positions appear fixed and natural.

There will also be a growing current of journalism that undercuts this narrative by probing the contingencies that hold these potentially fractious coalitions and political identities together. You could call it the political sociology beat. During and after the 2016 cycle, some journalists intensified their search for new ways of grasping what seemed like a rapidly changing, unpredictable, and unstable political reality. They started to make use of insights from emerging political and social theory — from scholars like Lilliana Mason and Leonie Huddy — to examine diverse social processes that create, maintain, and sometimes transform how people think about their political identity.

In 2020, political sociology reporting will get better. It will be able to tell more complex stories that grapple with challenging puzzles of political identity formation. Unfortunately, as journalism itself divides further into market-segmented niches, this kind of reporting is likely to be found primarily in outlets that target only certain well-educated audiences.

Anthony Nadler is an associate professor of media and communication studies at Ursinus College and author of Making the News Popular.

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