REAL NEWS, FAKE NEWS FOR LAWMAKERS, NO NEWS IS GOOD NEWS Mary Layton Atkinson | UNC Charlotte Mary Layton Atkinson is assistant professor of political science at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Her research focuses broadly on the policymaking process in Congress with an emphasis on public opinion, issue framing and media coverage of policy debates and legislative agendas. She is the author of Combative Politics: The Media and Public Perceptions of Lawmaking (University of Chicago Press, 2017).
or American lawmakers, dealing with the press has long meant dealing with a mix of unflattering and fake news reports. The proliferation of cable and online news sources in recent decades has, however, increased the volume of both. Unsubstantiated rumors and hoaxes now ricochet through cyberspace unimpeded. Meanwhile, the legitimate news media’s fixation on political conflict and drama sometimes distorts the reality of the policymaking process. Journalists’ focus on who is winning and who is losing in Washington paints lawmakers as self-interested and legislation as politically motivated. The combination of fake and filtered reality creates an inhospitable media landscape for lawmakers seeking to implement reforms. In this essay, I briefly discuss these two problems—fake news and conflict-focused news—from
the perspective of lawmakers. I then discuss some of the strategies politicians employ to overcome them. Finally, I argue that all of these strategies typically fail to debunk fake news, deflect negative coverage, and generate positive reports. I assert that the strategy with the most promise is the least prevalent in Washington today—bipartisan action.
The Mainstream Media Landscape Consumers have more options for news than ever before. The mainstream press now competes with cable news, online news, infotainment programming, and citizen journalists who post content on social media. To attract readers and viewers — and the advertising dollars that come with them — traditional news sources have added more soft news and increased the entertainment value of their content.
HEADLINES ALLUDE TO BATTLES, BRAWLS, AND KNOCKOUTS ON THE HILL, TURNING A BLOOD SPORT SANS THE BLOOD INTO A MAIN ATTRACTION. 12
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Public affairs journalists have followed this trend toward entertainment by producing reports about lawmaking that center on conflict between political elites. Headlines allude to battles, brawls and knockouts on the Hill, turning a blood sport sans the blood into a main attraction. This reporting enlivens public affairs by emphasizing the frequently combative process of policymaking. The “conflict frame” also conforms to norms of balanced reporting by telling two competing sides of a story. It is characterized by a focus on political strategy and tactics, the use of metaphors related to war and games, and discussions of the horse race in Washington. Coverage of policy substance is minimized by the use of the conflict frame. The dynamic process of policymaking allows journalists to craft ongoing storylines that can be updated throughout the course of the 24-hour news cycle. The substance of a proposed law, however, may change little during the course of a policy debate. Straightforward coverage of a bill’s key components and its likely effects make up a minority of the reports journalists produce about Congress. Instead, reporters fold discussions of policy substances into the broader narrative of who is winning and losing on the Hill.
Congress in the Era of Fake News