AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Anita Varma is the assistant director of Journalism and Media Ethics, as well as Social Sector Ethics. Views are her own.
What’s the score?
Are star players on each team playing fair?
Is the ref playing favorites?
These three questions are appropriate in the context of sports coverage. Daily (as well as hourly) coverage of impeachment, however, has started to sound like major news outlets are reporting on a lengthy championship between two teams rather than Constitutional proceedings.
Instead of defining impeachment in terms of Democrats versus Republicans, journalists would better serve their mission of informing readers by defining impeachment in terms of national solidarity.
Horse race coverage is usually discussed in terms of campaign polls. Which candidate is ahead or behind is used as an approximation of a candidate’s electability, struggles, or grounds for expecting landslide victories. Political communication scholars and journalism studies scholars alike have regularly cautioned against horse race coverage because of its implications for voters: by representing electoral politics in sports game terms, voters are quickly rendered passive spectators. Voter efficacy dwindles, cynicism spikes, and issues fade into the background as politicians battling for a title take the spotlight.
The same, it seems, is starting to set in for impeachment proceedings. Surprised and in some cases stricken, news outlets that deem impeachment fatigue newsworthy seem perturbed at the idea that the agenda they have set is one that lacks resonance for audiences. Surely, the deeper narrative of pieces like the New York Times article “‘No One Believes Anything’: Voters Worn Out by a Fog of Political News” (November 18, 2019) suggests, American voters should care to follow impeachment. Why wouldn’t they?
The problem with much of the news coverage of impeachment is that voters are missing from the discourse. How impeachable offenses affect the people who are expected to care about them is absent from coverage of what a cast of political elites said to each other and about each other.
In other words, prominent impeachment coverage represents and reinforces a vision of politics as a horse race: team Dems versus team Republicans. The issue of impeachment, and what it means for the nation (not party) of people the president is supposed to serve, sits vaguely in the background.
To avoid accusations of partisan bias, reporters from news outlets (many of which, ironically, are already well-known for their partisan bias) resort to quoting and summarizing the day’s testimony, with noticeable aversion to inserting explicit judgments or explanations. This practice, however, fails on all counts: people who view the news outlet as partisan still view it as such, and people who earnestly seek news about impeachment to understand the stakes for the country are left without practicable knowledge to make sense of the proceedings – and so they start to give up.
Framing impeachment in terms of national solidarity offers an ethical alternative to journalists hewing to horse race frames.
“To frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described,” Robert Entman wrote in the Journal of Communication.
National solidarity is neither blind patriotism nor isolationist nationalism. Solidarity is collective action that aims to advance justice. National solidarity, then, is collective action that aims to advance justice for the country. Justice is not partisan: it is what allows the existence of a party system – or any system of government – to endure with legitimacy.
Framed in terms of national solidarity, impeachment would move from being mud-slinging and “gotcha” grandstanding among politicians to an event that warrants attention from everyone who identifies as a member of this nation. The fate of the nation is intertwined with the fate of the office of the president, which means that accusations of abuses of power of the presidency have grave implications not only for the United States’ standing on an international stage, but also for what it means to claim membership in the United States.
National solidarity is far from an outlandish notion in American journalism: in cases like 9/11 and hurricanes, journalists have readily reached for national solidarity to report not in terms of partisan battles but in terms of how a damaged nation can come together to stand up for its ideals. The problem in these cases is that national solidarity has mutated into deference to national authorities. Yet standing up for justice for the nation does not, conceptually, mean deferring to those with state power: instead, standing up for justice for the nation means criticizing those in power who act against the dignity of the nation.
Continuing to cover impeachment with a horse race-partisan frame assures a disaffected public of readers. Rising evidence of alienation and resignation should be cause for alarm, particularly for journalists who consistently state their commitment to informing readers.
National solidarity as a frame for impeachment coverage offers an opportunity for journalists to not only declare but also demonstrate through practice the need for journalism in a democracy. Articulating the meaning of impeachment for the nation is what can reinvigorate people – across the political spectrum – to rejoin politics and, one can hope, renew the possibility for civic discourse.