‘Epic battle’ framing leads people to tune out and dig in, scholar says

Source: NWAwalrus

I regularly advocate for journalists to write in the strongest possible terms about the looming, epic battle for democracy being fought between Democrats and Republicans

But political communication professor Danna Young thinks I have it all wrong – at least if the goal is to change anyone’s mind.

The “epic battle between two parties” narrative only drives people further apart, Young says. And the media is doing too much of it already. 

“Saying there are two political sides locked in mortal combat pretty much makes it impossible for anyone to say, ‘OK, I’m going to change sides’, or ‘Maybe Biden really was the legitimate winner of the 2020 election’,” Young told me in an interview. 

“When we hear ‘epic battle between left and right’ our identities are threatened. Any real differences that exist between me and my team are muted, because there’s an outside threat.”

She asked: “Do journalists understand that every time our politics are framed as a vicious battle between right and left that it’s also reinforcing these mega-partisan identities?

“Everyone does it — NPR, the New York Times, the Washington Post. And it’s mostly in their headlines and their dominant frames. They center the ‘partisan divide’ and the ‘partisan battle for the heart of the nation’. The ‘epic conflict’ drives their narrative and in so doing reinforces the notion that it’s that simple.”

Here’s how Young, who teaches at the University of Delaware, described it in her fascinating new book, Wrong: How Media, Politics, and Identity Drive Our Appetite for Misinformation”:

We read a story where our team is in a fight with another team, and we immediately respond as a member of our team. Whether that team is defined in terms of gender or political party, once activated, we respond as a good team member would respond. This means that the very way that news stories are most frequently told and the way that political events and issues are most frequently presented are constantly driving us apart; activating our partisan identities and influencing us to match our attitudes to those of our party.

Her conclusion: 

A press that only reports on politics through the lens of partisan conflict to the exclusion of substantive reporting on issues, policy, and democratic processes… contributes to our political mega-identities and to hostility toward the other side.

What’s needed instead, Young said, is nuanced reporting about issues, institutions, and processes – about the stakes – rather than unwittingly exacerbating the split between two irreconcilable parties.

“The reality of voter positions is far more complex than that red/blue bifurcation would lead you to believe. There are specific divergences on nuanced issues even within individuals who look and feel similar ideologically.”

For instance, instead of asking who they’re voting for, journalists should be asking people what their views are on specific issues. That’s a much more interesting and nuanced story, Young said.

As an example, she recommends not asking “Do you like Trump?” but instead asking something like: ‘“What do you think about the State of Texas asking people to turn in parents who are letting their children receive gender-affirming medical care?”

At the level of the elected elites, the bifurcation between red and blue is simple and stark — and supported by all sorts of financial and power motivations. “But for citizens, it’s not that simple,” she said. 

Enough With the Culture Wars

Another way reporters regularly – and inadvertently – reinforce oversimplified partisan identities is by covering “culture war” issues almost to the exclusion of everything else, Young said.

Politicians engage in “dramatic identity-based performances” to satisfy their base, and journalists reward these outrageous displays with more media coverage. 

That, in turn leads to reductive thinking on the part of the audience, like: “Am I on the side of drag queens at story hour, or do I want to protect children?”

This is increasingly the case even in local news, Young says. 

“As the money made available to journalists to actually report on local news dries up, the reliance on national culture war issues increases, because it is emotionally arousing for readers and viewers and it is very easy to do.

“That reliance on those national culture war issues rather than being in the weeds on local policy is cheap, it’s emotionally evocative, and its ratings-getting.”

That’s a problem, Young writes in her book: “Since national politics tends to be more partisan than local politics, as we turn our attention away from local and toward national, we activate our partisan identities even more.”

Young’s advice for journalists is to engage “in democracy-centered reporting, not rewarding or incentivizing partisan performances of identity,” and to abandon “conflict framing,” where stories are told exclusively in terms of competing factions.

She also hopes for expanded “community-centered local news.” 

Why is that important? As she explains in her book:

When we think of ourselves as members of a shared geographic community – concerned about the local fire department and the welfare of our neighbors, celebrating the achievements of our town’s promising high school students and sports teams – we share tangible aspect of life in common with one another. And when we activate our community identities, our political mega-identities become diluted, perhaps even disconfirmed through meaningful interaction with category-violating members of partisan in- and out-groups.

Even reporting on the current battle over American democracy without immediately priming partisan identity is very much possible, Young argues. 

By first describing how democratic institutions, norms, and processes are undermined in authoritarian governments — and only then explaining which U.S. candidates are working to engage in anti-democratic behaviors and how — citizens are given the opportunity to think about the implications of democratic erosion, at least for a moment, before they peer through the lens of their partisan team identity. 

When it comes to the prospects for change, however, there is little cause for optimism.

“Conflict frames allow journalists to maintain an ‘objective’ stance to their treatment of a topic, framing Democrats and Republicans in a war against one another,” Young writes. 

By contrast, she told me: “Getting journalists to realize that among the American public, the giant umbrella categories of left and right are far more complicated than they think – that would be amazing.”


  1. This is why Biden doesn’t attack “Republicans,” but specifically “MAGA Republicans.” It’s both more accurate (there are Republicans like Liz Cheney who oppose Trumpism) and less divisive (it allows that a member of the opposite team could be an ally on certain issues).

    I have had a number of right-wing friends. They are high maintenance. I get tired of being their sounding board to find out what will make the libs cry. I get tired of showing them that their history is wrong, their economics is wrong, and they’re on mailing lists that spread propaganda from Nazi sites. Our relations have frayed. But I haven’t given up on them.

    Extremism grows because we don’t know one another. There are a lot of people on the left who think that all Republicans are MAGA. Granted, most Republicans believe some of the myths behind MAGA. But few have swallowed the whole package. And those people can be reached on issues that don’t affect their orthodoxy.

    We should have faith in the power of truth. Lies will eventually be exposed for what they are. It may take years, decades, or centuries, but eventually they die away. Truth is a lot harder to muffle, much less to completely conceal. I don’t know if Trump will win, or whether some other Republican will win and continue the MAGA movement, but I do know that the internal contradictions of Trumpism are destroying it from within. I just hope that the day when we see honesty, compassion, and community restored is not too far away.

  2. The culture war issue may be dead now that two of it’s leaders — Florida RNC chair Christian Ziegler and his wife, Mom’s for Liberty leader Bridget — have been outed as swingers and in his case, possibly a rapist.
    As for the “epic battle”framing I don’t feel like it’s that prevalent. What I am noticing is more of an “epic battle to save democracy” frame which seems far less divisive and partisan to me.

  3. I agree only where the election “horse race” mentality drives reporting, namely, polls and those annoying “diner” stories. I also object to the extensive shit-shoveling where clickbait darlings such as MTG, Boebert, the Hunter Biden nonsense et al are featured in major news coverage.

    Our news media are profit-driven and, as such, will peddle whatever sells. “If it bleeds, it leads.”


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