As I have detailed in past studies and as we write in the cover article at The Scientist, the dominant frame that appears when science turns political is the "strategy" frame. This is a journalist driven package that ignores the substance of the scientific issue or debate and instead employs an election-like emphasis on personalities, tactics, and who's ahead in winning the policy battle. Often this package becomes prominent when coverage shifts from the science beat to the political beat. It is under these conditions that "false balance" is most likely to appear in coverage of science.
The fact that political reporters default to the strategy frame when covering science should not be surprising considering just how internalized the norm has become. As Pew reports this week, based on its analysis of 2007 election coverage appearing January through May, the strategy or "horse race" frame has been by far the dominant narrative. Yet as the graph below shows, this package runs counter to what audiences say they prefer.
According to Pew, 63% of campaign stories focused on political and tactical aspects of the campaign. That is nearly four times the number of stories about the personal backgrounds of the candidates (17%) or the candidates' ideas and policy proposals (15%). And just 1% of stories examined the candidates' records or past public performance, the study found.
Not to be flippant, but I noticed that your post here was the #1 "emailed" post earlier on sciblogs today. You don't happen to have that widget displayed here, but it was.
I don't understand why people aren't commenting on your blog, Matt, but at least they still seem to be reading it.
obviously, I haven't, and likely won't, agree with much of what you have to say, but I would just like to say you should keep up the blogging effort, regardless of the lack of commentary.
So what do we do to get away from the moral equivalence implied by the "strategy frame"?
I suspect the reason that so-called journalists cover important political issues as if they were horse races is because they are, as a group, lazy and not terribly talented.
Surely you know how silly the idea is of asking the public "what they want covered." Do you really think they would admit to wanting to know more about the sex lives and scandals of candidates? All my film producer friends know that when you test a documentary with a group they will always say, with great sincerity, that they want more information on this and that. But when you put it in the film, they say, "gee, it kinda drags." What people say they want and what they really want are two very different things. Sometimes the low information content is the fault of lazy journalists, but a lot of the time is the fault of the lazy audience.
Obviously I agree with you. It's just like when in focus groups people say they hate negative political advertising, but then that's all they talk about at work, and the attack ad messages translate into the talking points they use to express their opinions.
It is because of the strategy frame that I object to science trying to frame itself for the public. I think scientists should try to drown out strategy talk with substantive discussion, i.e. actual, y'know, science? Don't join 'em, beat 'em. If you can't beat 'em we're doomed but at least we tried.