Audiences as framing guides

Dylan Matthews (guesting for Ezra Klein) has a nice piece on the way perceived audience make-up affects news framing:

[C]limate hawks aren’t in charge. Because of the filibuster, and now GOP control of the House, the balance of power rests with people who deny the need to take just about any action to stop climate change. So why is Fallows concerned with rebutting them, rather than trying to win over people to his right, who are actually in a position to change things?

In fairness, Fallows, like any journalist, has to target a specific audience, and chances are that the average Atlantic reader believes that manmade global warming is a serious threat, and are skeptics about clean coal insofar as they have views on the matter. Presenting the piece as a defense of coal makes more sense as a response to them than as an attempt to influence the political system.

He further notes that, though elite political journals all have narrowly perceived audiences, the long-form journalism they produce can be influential all around Washington — even if you think all your readers are center-left think-tankers, what you produce will be seen and used by pro-coal figures. The classic example of this is perhaps Betsy McCaughey’s “No Exit,” published and later retracted by The New Republic, and coincidentally cited as the most destructive impact on public discourse of the 1990s by James Fallows, who wrote the above-mentioned clean coal piece. “No Exit” presented an extreme, right-wing (and fictitious, as it turned out) view on the Clinton health care proposal to TNR’s middle-of-the-road audience, informing them that the proposal would forbid Americans from purchasing health care services outside of the new government-run system. While its first-level affect might have been to lead moderates away from supporting the plan, it also became a springboard for conservatives — George Will later claimed the proscription on outside care would be enforced by jail time.

All of which is to say, who you think you’re writing for matters, and who you’re actually writing for matters. Being able to reconcile the two could be key in producing journalism that can positively affect public policy.

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