united states project

Covering facts versus the ‘narrative’

The challenge for journalists when scandal fever hits
May 17, 2013

The dilemma for journalists this week: How should you cover a series of proto-scandals with seemingly little in common? As far as we know, internal Obama administration edits of talking points about the Benghazi attacks, Internal Revenue Service targeting of conservative groups for additional scrutiny, and the Justice Department’s seizure of Associated Press phone records aren’t part of some overarching political strategy; they don’t even involve the same administration officials. What links these events together, of course, is a new political reality: the administration is embattled by scandal for the first time since President Obama took office. Given the political circumstances, that pattern appears likely to continue.

So what should reporters do? Many are covering the new “narrative” of Obama’s administration, which is reflective of the way that political and media elites coordinate on interpretations of events as scandalous. As I argue in my academic research, media scandals are a “co-production” of the opposition party and the press. When both groups portray an event like the IRS allegations as a scandal, it often generates strong perceptions of wrongdoing among elites–in other words, a narrative of misconduct.

This week’s focus on narrative has been infuriating to critics like Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent, a liberal writer who points out that reporters are “imposing simplistic narratives on complex, disparate situations.” Both Politico’s Alexander Burns and John F. Harris and the Post‘s Karen Tumulty, for instance, frame the scandals as part of a narrative in which Obama is too aggressive in pursuing his political and ideological objectives–but no one has yet produced evidence of high-level White House involvement in either the IRS or AP cases. (As a result, Obama’s opponents are already attempting to link him to other scandals using vague language about how he gave “cues” through his “tone” and created “a mood, a tone… an atmosphere”.) Followup coverage has similarly framed the White House response as an attempt to “seize control of the narrative” and “shift in its favor the narrative.”

Others, like the Post‘s Ezra Klein, have noted the contradiction between the narrative of scandal and the lack of evidence of high-level misconduct. The strength of evidence matters, of course, but it does not solely determine what does or does not become a media scandal; these are political events, not courtroom trials. That’s why the scope of the scandal is already growing to encompass conspiracy theories about George Soros, leaks to the Obama campaign, and suggestions of politically-motivated audits of Romney donors. Scandals can quickly take on a life of their own.

Given those dynamics, how should scandal coverage be handled? Reporters could start by taking more responsibility for their role in creating and sustaining the media narratives that they are covering. It’s not easy to accommodate such an acknowledgment within the paradigm of objective news reporting, which typically frames the reporter as a passive observer of events–the Burns and Harris story on Obama’s “dangerous new narrative,” for instance, does not acknowledge Politico’s role in flooding the zone on these controversies. Still, there are surely ways to be more transparent about the media’s role in narrative creation and to exercise more careful judgment about which events to cover and how to frame them.

Most importantly, even as they acknowledge the role and importance of elite perceptions, reporters can do more to help readers separate the political event from the underlying facts. It’s much easier to pontificate about the “narrative” or engage in armchair punditry about scandal response tactics (Obama needs new staff!) than to do the hard work of reporting, but that hard work remains the most important function of journalism.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Follow @USProjectCJR for more posts from this author and the rest of the United States Project team.

Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at brendan-nyhan.com and tweets @BrendanNyhan.