63% of Election Coverage Focuses on Strategy Frame
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
As I have detailed in past studies and as we write in the cover article at The Scientist, the dominant frame that appears when science turns political is the "strategy" frame. This is a journalist driven package that ignores the substance of the scientific issue or debate and instead employs an election-like emphasis on personalities, tactics, and who's ahead in winning the policy battle. Often this package becomes prominent when coverage shifts from the science beat to the political beat. It is under these conditions that "false balance" is most likely to appear in coverage of science.
The fact that political reporters default to the strategy frame when covering science should not be surprising considering just how internalized the norm has become. As Pew reports this week, based on its analysis of 2007 election coverage appearing January through May, the strategy or "horse race" frame has been by far the dominant narrative. Yet as the graph below shows, this package runs counter to what audiences say they prefer.
According to Pew, 63% of campaign stories focused on political and tactical aspects of the campaign. That is nearly four times the number of stories about the personal backgrounds of the candidates (17%) or the candidates' ideas and policy proposals (15%). And just 1% of stories examined the candidates' records or past public performance, the study found.
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