Stop rewarding elite performances of identity threat

“In 2023, journalists can choose to relegate cynical elite displays of identity threat to mere footnotes.”

In the lead up to the 2022 midterms, news organizations anticipated that bad actors would attempt to push false narratives of voter fraud, vote rigging, and election denialism through news programming. To thwart these efforts, journalists preemptively engaged in democracy-centered reporting, highlighting the security of US elections, and appropriately pushing back against unfounded election-related conspiracy theories. The poor showing of election-denying GOP candidates in the 2022 midterms not only highlighted the public’s distaste for the destabilizing forces of authoritarianism, but also served as a testament to the hard work of journalism professionals who, for weeks, had sought to center democratic processes and sideline cynical political actors.

This is the kind of journalistic focus and vigilance we need — not just during election season, but every single day: Working deliberately to cover processes and institutions, without rewarding democratically harmful political performances with media coverage and attention.

Chief among these democratically harmful political displays? Dramatic performances of identity threat.

Take, for example, the March 2022 Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for then–Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson. South Carolina Republican senator Lindsey Graham voiced outrage over Judge Jackson’s defense of detainees held as enemy combatants in Guantanamo Bay Cuba after the attacks on 9/11.  He raised his voice as he discussed the notion of the prisoners’ early release, exclaiming, “As long as they’re dangerous, I hope they all die in jail if they’re going to go back and kill Americans.” After his emotional display, Graham abruptly turned off his microphone and exited the hearing.

Or recall Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s questioning of then-Judge Jackson on the topic of Critical Race Theory. Gesturing to a blown-up replica of Ibram X. Kendi’s children’s book Anti-racist Baby propped up on an easel behind him, Cruz asked, “Do you agree with this book that is being taught to kids that babies are racist?”

These dramatic displays constitute what political communication scholars Daniel Kreiss, Regina Lawrence, and Shannon McGregor call performances of “identity ownership,” or “attempts to create the perception and remind voters that they, and their parties, best represent particular social groups.”

By emotionally identifying threats that resonate with the fears of the Republican party’s increasingly homogenous white, Christian, conservative, rural base (Islamic terrorists, African Americans, or the “woke” left) these performances offer “proof” that Graham and Cruz are a) the best representatives of their team and b) the leaders best equipped to protect their team members from the threat posed by dangerous outgroups.

While these emotional appeals are designed to mobilize their base and help the senators avoid “getting primaried,” they are also motivated by a keen understanding of the routines, biases, and incentives of news.

A Lexis-Nexis search for news stories about the hearings during that week in March showed that on CNN, of the 95 stories that covered the Supreme Court hearings, a third mentioned the identity performances by Senators Graham or Cruz. Of Fox News’s 6 stories about the SCOTUS hearings, 58% mentioned Graham and 40% mentioned Cruz. On left-leaning MSNBC, of the 37 SCOTUS stories, 68% mentioned Graham and 62% mentioned Cruz.

Public officials engage in these dramatic displays of identity threat because they know they will be rewarded with media attention and news coverage. After his rant about “critical race theory” and “racist baby books,” Senator Cruz was caught on camera by LA Times photographer Kent Nishimura searching for his own name on Twitter.

These spectacular performances capitalize on news routines and biases while also playing to and exacerbating a social and cultural rift between America’s political parties. And the consequences for American democracy are dire. The distillation of our social and cultural political identities along racial and religious lines (especially on the political right) fuels contempt for the other side, causes regular Americans to overestimate how polarized average party members really are, and increases our identity-driven attraction to mis and disinformation — all outcomes that are catastrophic for democratic health.

But just as journalists chose to center democracy and sideline conspiracy theories before the 2022 midterms, in 2023 they can choose to relegate cynical elite displays of identity threat to mere footnotes, focusing instead on democratic processes and institutions.

Dramatic identity performances by political elites don’t have to drive the news cycle. Journalists can choose another way.

Danna Young is a professor of communication and political science at the University of Delaware and author of the forthcoming book Wrong: How Media, Politics, and Identity Drive our Demand for Misinformation.

In the lead up to the 2022 midterms, news organizations anticipated that bad actors would attempt to push false narratives of voter fraud, vote rigging, and election denialism through news programming. To thwart these efforts, journalists preemptively engaged in democracy-centered reporting, highlighting the security of US elections, and appropriately pushing back against unfounded election-related conspiracy theories. The poor showing of election-denying GOP candidates in the 2022 midterms not only highlighted the public’s distaste for the destabilizing forces of authoritarianism, but also served as a testament to the hard work of journalism professionals who, for weeks, had sought to center democratic processes and sideline cynical political actors.

This is the kind of journalistic focus and vigilance we need — not just during election season, but every single day: Working deliberately to cover processes and institutions, without rewarding democratically harmful political performances with media coverage and attention.

Chief among these democratically harmful political displays? Dramatic performances of identity threat.

Take, for example, the March 2022 Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for then–Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson. South Carolina Republican senator Lindsey Graham voiced outrage over Judge Jackson’s defense of detainees held as enemy combatants in Guantanamo Bay Cuba after the attacks on 9/11.  He raised his voice as he discussed the notion of the prisoners’ early release, exclaiming, “As long as they’re dangerous, I hope they all die in jail if they’re going to go back and kill Americans.” After his emotional display, Graham abruptly turned off his microphone and exited the hearing.

Or recall Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s questioning of then-Judge Jackson on the topic of Critical Race Theory. Gesturing to a blown-up replica of Ibram X. Kendi’s children’s book Anti-racist Baby propped up on an easel behind him, Cruz asked, “Do you agree with this book that is being taught to kids that babies are racist?”

These dramatic displays constitute what political communication scholars Daniel Kreiss, Regina Lawrence, and Shannon McGregor call performances of “identity ownership,” or “attempts to create the perception and remind voters that they, and their parties, best represent particular social groups.”

By emotionally identifying threats that resonate with the fears of the Republican party’s increasingly homogenous white, Christian, conservative, rural base (Islamic terrorists, African Americans, or the “woke” left) these performances offer “proof” that Graham and Cruz are a) the best representatives of their team and b) the leaders best equipped to protect their team members from the threat posed by dangerous outgroups.

While these emotional appeals are designed to mobilize their base and help the senators avoid “getting primaried,” they are also motivated by a keen understanding of the routines, biases, and incentives of news.

A Lexis-Nexis search for news stories about the hearings during that week in March showed that on CNN, of the 95 stories that covered the Supreme Court hearings, a third mentioned the identity performances by Senators Graham or Cruz. Of Fox News’s 6 stories about the SCOTUS hearings, 58% mentioned Graham and 40% mentioned Cruz. On left-leaning MSNBC, of the 37 SCOTUS stories, 68% mentioned Graham and 62% mentioned Cruz.

Public officials engage in these dramatic displays of identity threat because they know they will be rewarded with media attention and news coverage. After his rant about “critical race theory” and “racist baby books,” Senator Cruz was caught on camera by LA Times photographer Kent Nishimura searching for his own name on Twitter.

These spectacular performances capitalize on news routines and biases while also playing to and exacerbating a social and cultural rift between America’s political parties. And the consequences for American democracy are dire. The distillation of our social and cultural political identities along racial and religious lines (especially on the political right) fuels contempt for the other side, causes regular Americans to overestimate how polarized average party members really are, and increases our identity-driven attraction to mis and disinformation — all outcomes that are catastrophic for democratic health.

But just as journalists chose to center democracy and sideline conspiracy theories before the 2022 midterms, in 2023 they can choose to relegate cynical elite displays of identity threat to mere footnotes, focusing instead on democratic processes and institutions.

Dramatic identity performances by political elites don’t have to drive the news cycle. Journalists can choose another way.

Danna Young is a professor of communication and political science at the University of Delaware and author of the forthcoming book Wrong: How Media, Politics, and Identity Drive our Demand for Misinformation.

Felicitas Carrique and Becca Aaronson   News product goes from trend to standard

Gordon Crovitz   The year advertisers stop funding misinformation

Kerri Hoffman   Podcasting goes local

Mael Vallejo   More threats to press freedom across the Americas

Mario García   More newsrooms go mobile-first

Amethyst J. Davis   The slight of the great contraction

Andrew Losowsky   Journalism realizes the replacement for Twitter is not a new Twitter

Anthony Nadler   Confronting media gerrymandering

Jarrad Henderson   Video editing will help people understand the media they consume

Kaitlyn Wells   We’ll prioritize media literacy for children

AX Mina   Journalism in a time of permacrisis

Cassandra Etienne   Local news fellowships will help fight newsroom inequities

Gabe Schneider   Well-funded journalism leaders stop making disparate pay

Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau   More of the same

Susan Chira   Equipping local journalism

Eric Nuzum   A focus on people instead of power

Masuma Ahuja   Journalism starts working for and with its communities

Emma Carew Grovum   The year to resist forgetting about diversity

Danielle K. Brown and Kathleen Searles   DEI efforts must consider mental health and online abuse

Janet Haven   ChatGPT and the future of trust 

Megan Lucero and Shirish Kulkarni   The future of journalism is not you

Juleyka Lantigua   Newsrooms recognize women of color as the canaries in the coal mine

Brian Moritz   Rebuilding the news bundle

Burt Herman   The year AI truly arrives — and with it the reckoning

Michael Schudson   Journalism gets more and more difficult

Larry Ryckman   We’ll work together with our competitors

Eric Thurm   Journalists think of themselves as workers

Alexandra Borchardt   The year of the climate journalism strategy

Kathy Lu   We need emotionally agile newsroom leaders

Anika Anand   Independent news businesses lead the way on healthy work cultures

Martina Efeyini   Talk to Gen Z. They’re the experts of Gen Z.

Lisa Heyamoto   The independent news industry gets a roadmap to sustainability

Stefanie Murray   The year U.S. media stops screwing around and becomes pro-democracy

Ståle Grut   Your newsroom experiences a Midjourney-gate, too

Khushbu Shah   Global reporting will suffer

Basile Simon   Towards supporting criminal accountability

Ben Werdmuller   The internet is up for grabs again

Sam Gregory   Synthetic media forces us to understand how media gets made

Tamar Charney   Flux is the new stability

Jennifer Brandel   AI couldn’t care less. Journalists will care more. 

A.J. Bauer   Covering the right wrong

Sue Cross   Thinking and acting collectively to save the news

Tim Carmody   Newsletter writers need a new ethics

Mary Walter-Brown and Tristan Loper   Mission-driven metrics become our North Star

Pia Frey   Publishers start polling their users at scale

Snigdha Sur   Newsrooms get nimble in a recession

Sue Robinson   Engagement journalism will have to confront a tougher reality

Sumi Aggarwal   Smart newsrooms will prioritize board development

Peter Sterne   AI enters the newsroom

Dannagal G. Young   Stop rewarding elite performances of identity threat

Sarah Alvarez   Dream bigger or lose out

Amy Schmitz Weiss   Journalism education faces a crossroads

Sue Schardt   Toward a new poetics of journalism

Zizi Papacharissi   Platforms are over

Bill Grueskin   Local news will come to rely on AI

Simon Galperin   Philanthropy stops investing in corporate media

Mauricio Cabrera   It’s no longer about audiences, it’s about communities

Mar Cabra   The inevitable mental health revolution

Ayala Panievsky   It’s time for PR for journalism

John Davidow   A year of intergenerational learning

Jim VandeHei   There is no “peak newsletter”

Joshua P. Darr   Local to live, wire to wither

S. Mitra Kalita   “Everything sucks. Good luck to you.”

Moreno Cruz Osório   Brazilian journalism turns wounds into action

Ryan Kellett   Airline-like loyalty programs try to tie down news readers

Michael W. Wagner   The backlash against pro-democracy reporting is coming

Eric Holthaus   As social media fragments, marginalized voices gain more power

Gina Chua   The traditional story structure gets deconstructed

Ryan Nave   Citizen journalism, but make it equitable

Emily Nonko   Incarcerated reporters get more bylines

J. Siguru Wahutu   American journalism reckons with its colonialist tendencies

Mariana Moura Santos   A woman who speaks is a woman who changes the world

Brian Stelter   Finding new ways to reach news avoiders

Johannes Klingebiel   The innovation team, R.I.P.

Sarah Stonbely   Growth in public funding for news and information at the state and local levels

Surya Mattu   Data journalists learn from photojournalists

Taylor Lorenz   The “creator economy” will be astroturfed

Bill Adair   The year of the fact-check (no, really!)

Parker Molloy   We’ll reach new heights of moral panic

Cindy Royal   Yes, journalists should learn to code, but…

Richard Tofel   The press might get better at vetting presidential candidates

Delano Massey   The industry shakes its imposter syndrome

Joni Deutsch   Podcast collaboration — not competition — breeds excellence

David Cohn   AI made this prediction

Victor Pickard   The year journalism and capitalism finally divorce

Kaitlin C. Miller   Harassment in journalism won’t get better, but we’ll talk about it more openly

David Skok   Renewed interest in human-powered reporting

Joanne McNeil   Facebook and the media kiss and make up

Jacob L. Nelson   Despite it all, people will still want to be journalists

Barbara Raab   More journalism funders will take more risks

Matt Rasnic   More newsroom workers turn to organized labor

Nicholas Diakopoulos   Journalists productively harness generative AI tools

Jesse Holcomb   Buffeted, whipped, bullied, pulled

Rodney Gibbs   Recalibrating how we work apart

Esther Kezia Thorpe   Subscription pressures force product innovation

Cory Bergman   The AI content flood

Valérie Bélair-Gagnon   Well-being will become a core tenet of journalism

Al Lucca   Digital news design gets interesting again

Joe Amditis   AI throws a lifeline to local publishers

Laxmi Parthasarathy   Unlocking the silent demand for international journalism

Jessica Maddox   Journalists keep getting manipulated by internet culture

Jenna Weiss-Berman   The economic downturn benefits the podcasting industry. (No, really!)

Christoph Mergerson   The rot at the core of the news business

Nicholas Thompson   The year AI actually changes the media business

Sam Guzik   AI will start fact-checking. We may not like the results.

Upasna Gautam   Technology that performs at the speed of news

Dana Lacey   Tech will screw publishers over

Elite Truong   In platform collapse, an opportunity for community

Leezel Tanglao   Community partnerships drive better reporting

Karina Montoya   More reporters on the antitrust beat

Ariel Zirulnick   Journalism doubles down on user needs

Janelle Salanga   Journalists work from a place of harm reduction

Don Day   The news about the news is bad. I’m optimistic.

Raney Aronson-Rath   Journalists will band together to fight intimidation

Rachel Glickhouse   Humanizing newsrooms will be a badge of honor

Wilson Liévano   Diaspora journalism takes the next step

Molly de Aguiar and Mandy Van Deven   Narrative change trend brings new money to journalism

Paul Cheung   More news organizations will realize they are in the business of impact, not eyeballs

Ryan Gantz   “I’m sorry, but I’m a large language model”

Laura E. Davis   The year we embrace the robots — and ourselves

Christina Shih   Shared values move from nice-to-haves to essentials

Anita Varma   Journalism prioritizes the basic need for survival

Josh Schwartz   The AI spammers are coming

Alan Henry   A reckoning with why trust in news is so low

Jakob Moll   Journalism startups will think beyond English

Peter Bale   Rising costs force more digital innovation

Cari Nazeer and Emily Goligoski   News organizations step up their support for caregivers

Alex Perry   New paths to transparency without Twitter

Errin Haines   Journalists on the campaign trail mend trust with the public

Shanté Cosme   The answer to “quiet quitting” is radical empathy

Jody Brannon   We’ll embrace policy remedies

Anna Nirmala   News organizations get new structures

Alexandra Svokos   Working harder to reach audiences where they are

Hillary Frey   Death to the labor-intensive memo for prospective hires

Andrew Donohue   We’ll find out whether journalism can, indeed, save democracy

Julia Angwin   Democracies will get serious about saving journalism

Tre'vell Anderson   Continued culpability in anti-trans campaigns

Priyanjana Bengani   Partisan local news networks will collaborate

Jessica Clark   Open discourse retrenches

Dominic-Madori Davis   Everyone finally realizes the need for diverse voices in tech reporting

Nikki Usher   This is the year of the RSS reader. (Really!)

Alex Sujong Laughlin   Credit where it’s due

Jim Friedlich   Local journalism steps up to the challenge of civic coverage

Kavya Sukumar   Belling the cat: The rise of independent fact-checking at scale

Julia Beizer   News fatigue shows us a clear path forward

Daniel Trielli   Trust in news will continue to fall. Just look at Brazil.

Doris Truong   Workers demand to be paid what the job is worth

Jonas Kaiser   Rejecting the “free speech” frame

Kirstin McCudden   We’ll codify protection of journalism and newsgathering

Jaden Amos   TikTok personality journalists continue to rise

Eric Ulken   Generative AI brings wrongness at scale

Sarah Marshall   A web channel strategy won’t be enough

Jennifer Choi and Jonathan Jackson   Funders finally bet on next-generation news entrepreneurs

Francesco Zaffarano   There is no end of “social media”

Sarabeth Berman   Nonprofit local news shows that it can scale

Walter Frick   Journalists wake up to the power of prediction markets

Nicholas Jackson   There will be launches — and we’ll keep doing the work