Media Memes and the GOP's Immigration Stance in the 2012 Election: Narratives and Conventional Wisdom

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on May 15, 2012

As everyone who has followed politics at all in the last decade knows, the media's biggest buzzword for any political story is "narrative". Borrowed from cognitive psychology, that term literally means an assemblage of items (not necessarily facts) that are designed to convey a preferred impression. In the news media and political campaigns it is simply a storyline assembled for a purpose.

That purpose may be as obvious as furthering a party or political candidate's preferred storyline on an issue. Or it may be part of a reporter's effort to push his or her point of view. In either case, storyline shortcuts often wind up shortchanging, or altogether ignoring, factual elements that don't fit the preferred narrative.

Another word for narrative in the world of media analysis is "conventional wisdom", which can be defined as what reporters wish or think is true. Narratives are useful shortcuts for most reporters because they are generalists, not experts in what they write about. And most are prevented from thinking more deeply by demanding deadlines and the frequent need to chase the story du jour.

So we get sentences like this about Mitt Romney's high school behavior by National Journal's Jim O'Sullivan: "But scattered reports about actions that candidates take in their youth usually matter politically only if they further existing narratives." (Emphasis added.)

Allow me to translate:

Mitt Romney may be a bully. Or maybe not. In order to ascertain that, one would have to make some judgment about the accuracy of the story that has emerged about him giving an unwanted haircut to a fellow student, the meaning of adolescent behavior for adult development, and particularly its connection to being President of the United States. One would also have to consider a range of evidence suggesting Mr. Romney was a thoughtful helper of others having troubles in their lives.

This is a tall order for the average news story, and for me personally since I don't have the time, space, or knowledge to really explore these questions. So I will simply "report" that they matter only if they are consistent with an established "narrative". Mind, you, I am not saying it does or doesn't matter, or why, if its true. I am only saying that it matters if it agrees with conventional wisdom, which is to say what others — whose arguments I can't or won't evaluate — think.

This seems like a very good operational definition of the media's lemming psychology.

Which brings me to immigration.

Next: Media Memes and the GOP's Immigration Stance in the 2012 Election: Dammed if You Do, Dammed if You Don't