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  • Jennie Dear

Partisan frames don’t fit Supreme Court and Pope Francis stories

As the Supreme Court starts a new session, journalists have been asking whether its rulings will reflect a Republican or Democratic agenda. But that approach pushes the su

bject into a frame that doesn’t fit well—and illustrates why journalists need to keep questioning how they frame the news.

For example, here’s the beginning of an NBC News story:

The U.S. Supreme Court term that begins Monday is likely to produce big victories for the court’s conservatives, in contrast to last term’s liberal-leaning decisions in favor of Obamacare, same-sex marriage and the right to sue for housing discrimination.

The left side did a lot of winning last year,” says Prof. Irv Gornstein, who directs the Supreme Court Institute at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C.

“I would expect a return to the norm in which the right wins most of the big cases.”

If you look at this story's underlying analysis, you see it indicates the Supreme Court’s rulings have been neither conservative nor liberal overall. But the article still frames them as such. And the political frame is especially superficial: It focuses on the superficial question of which side wins or loses.

This means the Supreme Court’s rulings are treated as secondary to political elections. The story asks readers to consider complex judicial matters from the standpoint of how they benefit the left or the right—as opposed to, say, what they show about changing American values, or differences and similarities between the Supreme Court’s understanding of the constitution and that of the American public.

It’s a bit unfair to pick on NBC News. You can see other examples of this approach at The New York Times, National Public Radio, Politico, or The Washington Post, to name a few.

The same phenomenon was on display during Pope Francis’ recent visit to the U.S.: Over and over, journalists asked whether the pope’s agenda was more Republican or Democratic—sometimes, even as they cautioned that it was neither.

“Is the Pope more aligned with Republicans or Democrats?” asks Robert Montenegro at Big Think.

And, even as columnist Michael McGough at the Los Angeles Times points out that “commentators obsessed with U.S. politics started to deconstruct his speech from a partisan and ideological perspective,” he admits, “It’s an irresistible exercise, and I’m not going to resist it.”

You can see why framing the pope’s visit in terms of two polarized political parties might be problematic: The pope—and the Supreme Court, for that matter—often operate in very different spheres from American political parties, even though those sphere sometimes overlap.

Pope Francis, who spent most of his life in Argentina and now lives in Italy, is more directly subject to other political systems. Discussing what he does as it affects U.S. political parties fails to communicate that issues and governments are different elsewhere. And it perpetuates a false notion that the U.S. political system is the only one that matters—or that people from other countries are governed by the same political values.

News stories that approached the Pope through the context of Catholic history, or other religions, or American moral or religious values, did better.

In a column for Fox News, John Fea says that journalists need a different frame for their coverage of the pope:

Pundits and commentators insist on trying to comprehend Francis’s message in political terms. This is a wrongheaded approach. The Pope is not liberal or conservative. He is not a Democrat or Republican. He is a Catholic. And whatever he says about politics, culture, or the economy stems from this identity.

Our propensity for trying to place the Pope in a political box says more about our culture than it does about the social views of the Catholic Church….Americans are captive to ideological categories like “Left: and “Right.” They are captive to political parties that allow little original thought that does not conform to rigid and limited platforms.

When the pope tells Congress to pay attention to climate change or to the world’s poor people, it’s a disservice to the American public to treat the story as simply more horse-race coverage focused on whose side is doing better, as opposed to providing more depth about why the pope is so concerned about the environment, or what measures he might be proposing, or whether any action might be forthcoming.

In a story for CNN, reporter Stephen Collinson includes this pointed critique from John Carr:

“Pope Francis is the ultimate Washington outsider. His priorities are not Washington’s priorities,” said John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University. “We think we are the center of the world. We are not the center of Pope Francis’ world. He is frankly more comfortable in the slums of Argentina than in the corridors of power.”

What’s an alternative? Fea’s opinion piece on Pope Francis doesn’t ignore politics. But it doesn’t limit the pope’s politics or views to those of the two major U.S. parties. Instead, it places the pope’s visit in some historical context:

Thursday, a Catholic Pope entered the chamber of the House of Representatives and gave a speech to a joint meeting of Congress urging those in attendance to apply Catholic social teaching to the affairs of the nation.

For most 18th and 19th century Americans the prospect of a person landing on the moon would have been more believable.

A focus on the issues themselves can be refreshing. For instance, while Newsweek introduced its story about the Supreme Court’s upcoming session in political terms, it followed that introduction with a helpful list of brief summaries of the major cases the court will consider, placing each in the context of other judicial rulings.

It's easy to frame your news story in terms of the same old issues—but it might be a lot more interesting and helpful if you don't.

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