chapter  5
“Showdowns,” “Duels,” and “Nail-Biters”
How Aggressive Strategic Game Frames in Campaign Coverage Fuel Public Perceptions of Incivility
WithDannagal Goldthwaite Young, Lindsay H. Hoffman, Danielle Roth
Pages 12

Political communication scholars have long lamented the dominance of the campaign strategy and game framing in campaign news coverage. In lieu of stories about political issues and candidate policy positions, campaign stories tend to focus on public opinion polls—who is ahead and who is behind (also called horse-race coverage)—and often rely on language of sports and war. Numerous quantitative studies have demonstrated potentially deleterious effects of exposure to strategic news on political cynicism and trust in government. Additional research has demonstrated that strategy-framed coverage increases negative emotions like anger and disgust, and increases a reliance on strategic (rather than issue-based) knowledge structures about politics. Most studies of the effects of strategic or game-framed news coverage compare strategy frames, on the one hand, with issue-based frames (stories focused on policy and platform) on the other. Given the pressures, particularly on television news executives, to focus on dramatic, personalized, and conflict-driven narratives, it seems the likelihood of strategy frames being abandoned by news producers in favor of strict issue coverage is slim to none. Is it possible, then, to articulate alternative approaches to strategy-framing that do not incite anger and disgust, or that are less likely to promote cynical or hostile perceptions of politics? In this chapter, we articulate the characteristics of what we call the “aggressive strategy frame”—that is, campaign stories dominated not only by the game frame but also by aggressive language of war and sports, including words like “battle,” “attack,” “destroy,” and “duel.” But, instead of pitting such frames against issue-framed stories (which are fundamentally different in content and emphasis), we compare the effects of “aggressive strategy-framing” to the effects of exposure to strategy frames that are simply less war- and game-like in their language—one being a neutral strategy frame (that merely excludes language of war and games), and the other being a strategy frame that is focused more on the citizen than the candidate (which we call a citizen-centric frame). Based on an experiment conducted on a national sample in the context of the 2016 general election campaign, we test the effects of these three different strategy frames on emotional responses, as well as perceptions of the level of hostility within the campaign story. Results indicate that more neutral and citizen-centric strategy frames offer journalists an alternative way to cover the horse-race without promoting perceptions of incivility and hostility in the same way that aggressive strategy frames often do.