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Why Be Partisan If It's All Just Strategy?

Cynical reporting could be a tonic for red-blue disease.

A new study from two journalism professors and a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison found that how a news story is framed, either as a matter of principle or as a matter of strategy, affected the recipient's knee-jerk response to the story.

Stories presented as a clash of political interests or strategy saw the undergrads discount partisan screening in analyzing what they absorbed. To extrapolate from what lead author Nam-Jin Lee and his two co-authors found, when we've been informed that the issue isn't about values but about gaining an advantage, we knock down the partisan prism and use other salient analytical tools in our arsenals. (In matters of values, they found framing neither helps nor hinders efforts to place the new information in our own partisan continuum.)

Now it's obvious that how a journalist frames a story affects how someone interprets it. But I'd argue both that framing a story as a values or strategy issue is in itself pretty neutral and that such framing is routinely applied by journalists in their (mostly) innocent quest for "context."

It's not neutral, though not necessarily inappropriate, when an action is itself labeled as a strategic move or as a form of soft damnation — i.e., the selection of Sarah Palin as a vice presidential candidate was often framed as a strategic move to shore up John McCain's social conservative base.

But that kind of framing is not what Lee and Co. are addressing in the October issue of the journal Communication Research. They took two divisive issues, stem cell research and immigration, which they knew had strong partisan baggage attached, and presented news stories on them to about 800 undergrads (of course!) at a large Midwestern university.

Strategy frames seem likely to induce individuals to interpret partisan conflict over issues as a political game, in which political action is dictated by the motivations of partisan actors for gaining political advantage for themselves — not necessarily for their party, let alone for the public. The ideas that politics is a game and that self-interested politicians are dishonest about their motivations seems to reduce the importance of partisan cues in the judgment process. ... However, it is not clear that this cynicism is necessarily a bad thing if it leads to decision making based on the merits of arguments rather than simply on partisan cues.

The question then becomes, Does this suppression of partisanship-based reasoning lead to more considered and deliberative judgments?

Unfortunately, the authors give the unsatisfying (but almost certainly accurate) answer that it depends on the individual.

The study does provide another cautionary reminder for reporters — that fundamental and guile-free decisions about how to present a story, even without the bias and slant that culture warriors insist must have been inserted, still are never neutral.

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