Escaping from ‘Flatland’
Journalism inevitably flattens reality, since we can tell only a tiny part of any story. How framing can make that situation better or worse.
This post follows previous installments on “framing” the news: “A Word the Press Should Remember,” “Framing the News: an Update”; and “Journalism Needs to Engage with its Critics.” Also, this tribute last week to the late Eric Boehlert, of Press Run.
As a reminder: framing involves the assumptions that go into the who, what, where, why, how of a story—all of which generally make a bigger difference than obvious expressions of bias. What deserves coverage? Which stories should a news organization stick with week after week? Which ones, by contrast, become old news—“we’ve already covered that”—once they’re a few days in the past? What are the “sides” of a disagreement that deserve a platform and attention? Which can be dismissed? The endless stream of such decisions constitutes “news judgment.” As they mount up they shape the view of the world that journalism offers.
Here are a few recent illustrations of how the complexities of the world can be artificially flattened by habits of framing. The first two may seem tiny but are “tells” of deeper attitudes.
1) Documenting ‘life in red state America.’ Versus ‘documenting life.’
Here was a job notice on one of the Washington Post’s official Twitter accounts this week. It appears to be real.
What’s significant here? The assumption that an assemblage of nearly 30 million people, in the fastest-growing and second-most populous state, can usefully be classified as “red state America.” And that for journalistic purposes, the area can be understood as “a region shaped by conservative ideology.” These views are connected to the larger flattening impulse of thinking that the real “news” in most developments is their political impact. That is something many people in journalism and government naturally think, and that most other people do not.
About Texas itself: I’ve spent some time there. My wife, Deb, and I lived in Texas twice, for three-plus years, starting while she was doing her graduate work at the University of Texas. I was a staff writer for Texas Monthly at the time, and briefly an aide in the Texas State Senate. One of our sons and his family now live in Texas. Over the years, on reporting projects and general travel, I’ve been to some 200 of Texas’s 254 counties. I’ve had barbecue in a lot of them.
I mention this because the experience hammered home an impression we also had while living in China, and that most non-Americans have if they’re exposed to more than a few spots in the United States. That is of the contradictions, complexity, and diversity of life in any of these places.
In the case of Texas, it’s a nation-sized state, with more internal contrasts than many entire countries. The East Texas piney-woods culture of Tyler and Marshall; the far-west Texas of El Paso and outposts like Van Horn; the flatlands of the Panhandle and their unceasing winds; the farming areas of the Rio Grande Valley, and the resorts on Padre Island; the Hill Country around now-booming Austin and Round Rock; the shrimp-and-petroleum zones east of Houston; the invisible cultural dividing line between Dallas and Fort Worth—these and many other gradations make Texas its own coherent-but-complex world. Almost every day when we lived in China, Deb and I were startled by something we had just seen. Much the same was true in our years in Texas. It is both predictable and surprising. It is both inspiring and depressing.
The increasing right-wing-ism of the state’s government is one part of its reality. But so is the proudly claimed status of its largest population center, Houston, as the most racially diverse city in the U.S. This is a place where an “enterprising reporter” would arrive and think: I’m in Heaven! Everywhere I turn, there is something new to learn about, and something that will challenge my expectations. Texas’s role within “a region shaped by conservative ideology” is one aspect to be documented. But just one.
Of course the Washington Post has other correspondents covering other stories in Texas. But imagine if the Guardian or Times in the UK, or Le Monde or Die Welt in Europe, or NHK TV in Japan, had placed the following notice five years ago:
We are looking for an enterprising reporter based in the United States to document life in Trump’s America and develop a new beat mapping the culture, public policies, and politics in a nation shaped by conservative ideology.
You would think: Well, that’s part of the story. But maybe it’s a needlessly narrow way to begin. That’s what I would think. I would also think: we know that journalism inevitably flattens reality. But you want to fight the flattening as much as you can. To me the joy of reporting, and its essence, is openness to the things you didn’t know until you showed up.
The Post is a great paper, and I am sure that whoever gets this job will do a lot of great stories. The point is that the paper thought to frame the mission as a statewide version of “guy in a diner.”
2) Everyone is bad at predictions. But bring on the midterms!
At the start of this week NPR tweeted out an item about a politics report, with this teaser:
Several of the Senate seats up for grabs in the 2022 midterms were very close states in the 2020 election, and the slightest push in the GOP’s direction could tip the balance of the Senate.
Here’s a look at the 10 seats most likely to flip:
What are the framing issues here? Several:
Prediction of any kind is usually the least valuable thing reporters can do. As opposed to investigation, and explanation—what has happened, and is happening, rather than what might happen. Political forecasts often turn out to be guess work—just ask President Hillary Clinton—and there’s little accountability for guessing wrong.
Predictions seven months before an election are additionally shaky. As a reminder: seven months ago, Joe Biden’s management of the withdrawal from Afghanistan was going to be the decisive event for his presidency and of the decade. Who knows what the next seven months will bring.
Even on its own terms, the billing was odd. The story was about the 10 Senate seats “most likely to flip”—of which five are now held by Republicans. So the billing of the story could just as “accurately” have been, “the slightest push in the Democrats’ direction could tip the balance of the Senate.”
(Yes, I understand that the Democrats now “control” the 50-50 Senate, thanks to Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote. So a one-seat GOP gain would be a “flip” in a way that a one-seat Democratic gain would not. But the “slightest push” in the Democrats’ direction would mean that Joe Manchin was no longer a one-man majority, among other things. So the headline could as easily have said, “the slightest push in the Democrats’ direction could revive Biden’s hopes.”)
To me, this should be an all-hands-on-deck moment for reporting about the mechanics of democracy, and where and how rules are being changed. This factor was not mentioned in the NPR story. More, please, on what is happening, less on what might occur. (As Dan Froomkin continues to note.)
3) ‘That’s just Trump.’
I have mentioned several times the power of the ‘That’s just Trump’ framing assumption. He’s still cozying up to Putin, and his family is on the take. But how is this news? What did you expect? The classic example of the resulting grading-on-the-curve is saturation front-page coverage of what turned out to be a meaningless “scandal” about Hillary Clinton’s emails just before the 2016 election, versus one-day, inside-page references to gross legal and ethical violations by Trump.
The latest much-discussed illustration was the New York Times’s decision last week to run a story with the following print-edition headline, not as a banner front-page bulletin but at the bottom of page A15:
Text from Trump Son Is Said
To Plan Overturning Election
This seems like news! But it was not played that way by our dominant paper.
For now, as they say on the talk shows, “we’ll leave it there” …
… Except for an additional framing element of this story. The second paragraph of the NYT story begins, “The text [from Trump Jr], which was reported earlier by CNN…” In the media world, that may explain why the story wasn’t on the front page. For readers, a story’s importance doesn’t depend on who first reported it. But in our business it’s a powerful impulse to downplay scoops by someone else.
Also, we may need to expand this category beyond ‘That’s just Trump.’ A new framing convention is emerging: That’s just the Thomas family. Coverage about Ginni Thomas’s involvement in the January 6 insurrection, while her husband, Clarence, was ruling on cases involving Trump, has turned into an “old news” story, not even making it to page A15.
4) The difference between rudeness, and toughness.
Let’s end on a positive note! Long ago in my book Breaking the News I wrote about how a confrontational-sounding attitude in press questioning often took the place of genuinely tough-minded inquiry.
You see illustrations frequently in the White House briefing room, and constantly on talk shows. Some questions are posed purely to create a clip of the questioner “challenging” a public official, rather than to get a real response.
Last week there was an example of what actual toughness looks like. It’s been widely discussed but deserves a return look.
This was the session that Jonathan Swan, of Axios, had with Mitch McConnell, of the GOP Senate bloc. I direct your attention to the segment below, beginning at time 12:00. That is when Swan tries to get McConnell to say whether there is anything Donald Trump could do or say that would lead McConnell not to support him.
The answer Swan eventually got was: No, there is no such line. The fascinating thing was how different this segment was from the standard DC talk-show interaction:
For the first twenty seconds after the question, McConnell tries to engage Swan in “we’re all part of the club” jokey bonhomie, which almost always works in these sessions. Swan was affable but would not take the bait.
McConnell tried several versions of “you’re really going to ask me about this? Seriously?” Swan made clear that, yes he was. Why is this significant? Because it is so different from that standard talk show sign-off line, “Well, we’ll leave it there” or “So much more to discuss.”
McConnell tried to buffalo Swan, by asking for specifics about where he had been hypocritical. And Swan, well prepared, went right to the transcripts.
McConnell switched from jokey-dismissive to angry at some points. Swan did not change his demeanor, but would not be deterred.
I’ve written several times that Anglosphere interviewers from outside the U.S. are generally better at this than most DC talk hosts. The Brits, the Irish, the Canadians, and in Swan’s case the Australians. I would like more Yanks to study this footage, rather than White House press conferences.
A few more good things to read
The much-missed Eric Boehlert signed off his posts with “Good Stuff” and “Fun Stuff,” links and recommendations on a variety of fronts. In that spirit, a few links here.
Margaret Sullivan, excellent former Public Editor at the NYT and now the excellent media columnist at the Washington Post, with “The media is failing the public on the good news about jobs.” As with nearly everything she writes, this is very much worth reading. I’ll have more on this theme coming up.
On a related front, here is an academic paper from last year, on “Class-Biased Economic Reporting in the United States.” Or: why there is so much attention to the stock market and corporate profits. Sample: “Drawing on a large new dataset of US news content, we demonstrate that the tone of the economic news strongly and disproportionately tracks the fortunes of the richest households, with little sensitivity to income changes among the non-rich.” Coverage is slanted away from trends like the current job boom.
The latest issue of The Washington Monthly, where I wrote my first magazine articles and of which I am a loyal alum. It has always been politically informed but not politically obsessed. If you browse through the new issue and the site you’ll see a range of articles about: dealing with the new monopolies of the era, protecting the machinery of democracy, creating an economic version of NATO, encouraging higher education that broadens opportunity (rather than reinforces privilege), and tons more. Among other good places to start is Garrett Epps’s piece about Ketanji Brown Jackson’s background as a public defender.
From our friend Thomas Easterling at the Mississippi School of Mathematics and Science, the beginning of a podcast series in which his students, from across the state, talk about what would and would not draw them back to their home towns. The first one, from Raegan Calvert of Wiggins, Mississippi, is here, as part of the new Our Towns Foundation site. You could think of this as a chronicle of “life in red state America,” but I think you will hear in it a lot more.
It’s more like life presented in many dimensions, rather than flattened out.
Sorry to be a bit late on this- just getting over a mild case of COVID, so just getting to this now.
Thank you for the section on Texas and Houston. As Dallas, Harris (Houston), Bexar (San Antonio), and Travis (Austin) counties all went blue in the last presidential election, you would think the WashPo would know better than to publish such a simplistic job posting. There is a flip side to this, as many clusters of Trump voters live within two hours of the DC or Midtown Manhattan flatlands that an "enterprising reporter" could visit for another perspective.
Sadly, the problem exists beyond journalism. Some time ago, I heard the Democratic nominee for president speak (I won't say the candidate's name, but-read on-it's not too hard to figure out). Afterward, I went up to the candidate and said, "I think you are great, but what do I say to my family in Texas?" The candidate gruffly replied (perhaps it was the end of a long day), "Tell them I served in the military. Tell them I hunt and am a gun owner." I was a bit shocked at this response- we have few gun owners in our family. My parents, who have never shot a gun, are small business owners and artists- certainly not the Texas stereotype. They were concerned about economic issues, not guns.
The Flatland analogy is excellent. I took Herbert Gans' "Sociology of News and Journalism" course at Columbia when his book “Deciding What’s News- A Study of CBS and NBC Evening News, Time and Newsweek” was first published. Gans does not use the word “framing," but the last prescriptive chapter of the book is called “Multiperspectival News," which gets at many of the same points (and, you could say, uses a similar spatial analogy). Sadly, over 40 years later, we do have some multiperspectival news in the sense that there are different cable channels and programs for different audiences. Still, much of it is driven by ratings/market needs and the related need to cater to the confirmation biases of the audience. Journalists have enough trouble just satisfying these market imperatives to stay employed. Still, we can only hope that they can stretch themselves further to provide more perspectives and dimensions to stories.
Thanks for pointing me to the Swan/McConnell interview. I agree with you that often times, the foreign questioners get to the critical point whereas US interviewers tend to be too deferential. McConnell's carefree "things will self correct" throw away near the end was a misreading of history. It would have been nice to get some answers about how valuable the tax cuts enacted at the beginning of the Trump Administration have done as this appears to be the only proactive plan advanced by the Republican Party in the past decade and a half.