Media’s chosen master narratives determine electoral success

Published by Tony Quinlan on

I’ve long believed that the media and their chosen frameworks for “news” are hugely responsible for shaping mindsets far beyond the power of their headlines. Without wishing to inflate already-over-large heads, the style, language and “master narrative” with which a particular story or series of stories is reported is hugely influential. Reviewing the current campaign for the Democratic 2004 nomination, Andrew R. Cline wrote in Rhetorica here about the bias that gets introduced when journalists choose a narrative. The whole article is excellent, focusing on the use of narratives created around candidates that need drama to make them interesting – hence the need to introduce the appearance of instability and conflict based on personality. And policy gets lost in the argument.

“[His] conclusion (theory): The nominees for President of the United States are chosen largely by the press through the construction of master narratives and voters’ reactions to these narratives.”

An example he sets out:

“A master narrative, in this context, is a set characterization of a candidate that leads to a set plot line in the “story” of that candidate’s campaign.

Master narratives have many sources. Most of these set characterizations spring from the candidates themselves as normal image control. Sometimes, circumstances of a campaign create such narratives. And the press has been known to create them, too.

No matter the source, a master narrative is generally constructed this way:
1- A pattern of behavior is noticed.
2- The behavior is characterized, i.e. given a name.
3- The character is portrayed as part of a plot, i.e. a set course of actions, consistent with the character, beginning with a central tension and leading to a climax and denouement.
4- The candidates words and actions are analyzed by comparing them to the character and the plot.

Thus the narrative defines the candidate.

Let’s consider the narrative created by candidate Howard Dean. The character he’s created for himself I’ll call the “electable liberal.”

Over the last few months, Dean has openly countered the war, chided his opponents for moderate and conservative views, pushed an extensive healthcare package (and compared it favorably to such systems in Canada, England, and France), and claimed he represents the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” And he backs it all up with a generally successful record as governor of a notably liberal state.

This character may take full advantage of the conventional-wisdom plot of presidential campaign politics: run on the wings for the nomination and then switch to run in the middle (central tension of the plot) to win the national campaign (climax).

Dean created the narrative by acting consistently based on the electable liberal character. And the press accepts and transmits this character and the conventional-wisdom plot to news consumers.

Okay, but isn’t this just standard image building in campaign politics? Yes, it is. The problem is that the press solidifies master narratives so that reporters have trouble writing stories with any characterization or plot other than the one allowed by the master narrative. And this structural bias of journalism can have detrimental effects for both citizens and candidates. ”

Is this new in the age of tabloid reporting – or merely enhanced? Or is it rather that, as we become more media/message/culture aware, we see these things more vividly? Whatever, it seems clear to me that the increasingly inflammatory and emotional language and narratives being used by many media outlets in order to drive up readership and revenue are more and more irresponsible.