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Fiscal Cliff Coverage: The Game? It Doesn’t Have to Be

December 7, 2012 Leave a comment

The election is over, but when considering the news coverage of the “Fiscal Cliff,” the framing of politics as a strategic game remains dominant.  Even the term “Fiscal Cliff” is an example of how framing a conflict can influence the outcome; after all, one either stops short of a cliff and lives or falls over the cliff to one’s death.   In reality, the nation does not appear to be facing that kind of a Butch and Sundance choice.  Despite the framing of the policy issue as a “fiscal cliff” being treated with some close attention on MSNBC’s Up with Chris Hayes, most journalists and politicians have taken up the frame without much complaint.

Now that a policy negotiation is afoot, we might expect to read, watch, and listen to coverage about the various policy options that sit before the Republicans and Democrats in Washington, D.C.  Instead, as Regina Lawrence’s fine work suggests, we are generally being treated to coverage, on both the news and editorial side, of the “Fiscal Cliff” as a strategic game. Will the Republicans fold on tax hikes for the wealthy? Will the president fold instead? Who will move first? Game framing also boils down complex policy options to a battle of individuals: Obama vs. Boehner; McConnell vs. Reid, rather than an exploration of options and possible consequences of those options (But see here for an example of a nice exception).

One irony of game framing coverage is that, even absent elections, policy issues that come with a promised deadline, as the Fiscal Cliff does, get game framing coverage until the decision is made. Then, the attention turns to the substance.  You know, after it is too late to do anything about it.

I encourage political reporters covering this important issue to work on stories that explain to their audience, in detail, what occurs if no deal is reached, what the major policy goals are on both sides of the aisle and at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and what experts think that the consequences might be if each side gets what they want, compromises, or refuses to make a deal.

 
In truth, this kind of reporting doesn’t change much of the writing of any individual story. It drops a few paragraphs of treating the debate as a contest between individuals or strategic game about appealing to voters or intra-party constituencies and adds in a few lines of policy information. The change is in the amount of work it takes to get that information, make sense of it, and explain it to the audience.  I am confident that the nation’s political reporters are up to the task.  When experts get called, I encourage them to avoid the game frame too; it turns out that we are often guilty of feeding the beast.

It isn’t that game framing is terrible; it often includes some useful information – it just isn’t the only useful information. Instead, game framing is the easiest information to include in reporting.  The public would be better served by a sustained and comprehensive effort to cover this important story. And, as always, if all else fails, call Kreskin.

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