By Richard Lee
In the first few days of 2023, the nation experienced two shocking events. A 24-year-old professional athlete suffered cardiac arrest during a nationally televised football game, and members of the House of Representatives were unable to elect a speaker, placing the House in a state of chaos.
The stories of Damar Hamlin and Kevin McCarthy have something else in common; both gave us extraordinary examples of the need for explanatory journalism.
Millions of television viewers watched Hamlin collapse on the field at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati. They did not need journalists to tell them what happened; they needed someone to explain the situation, and that’s what ESPN did.
At the stadium, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman and Lisa Salters described the surreal scene unfolding before them. In the studio, a group of analysts provided needed context. Former NFL players Ryan Clark and Booger McFarland explained how injuries, even serious injuries, are part of the game, but that what was happening in Cincinnati was unprecedented.
Kevin McCarthy’s unsuccessful quest for Speaker of the House does not have the immediate drama of the Hamlin story. What it does have is tremendous significance for the nation. The Speaker is third in line for the presidency. Without a Speaker, the House cannot conduct business, even the simplest of actions such as swearing in new members, let alone address the serious domestic and foreign policy issues confronting the U.S. today.
To understand the steps involved in electing a Speaker, viewers needed more than a basic knowledge of civics; they needed to comprehend the intricacies of House rules and parliamentary process, such as how voting “present” instead of voting for a person could alter the number of votes needed to win the speakership. Journalists did this and more as the lawmakers failed to elect a Speaker on three separate occasions Tuesday and three more on Wednesday.
As a journalist and a journalism professor, I often hear the question “Why can’t we just get the facts?” The long answer involves the emergence of the internet, the growth of social networks, economic factors and much much more.
The short answer is Damar Hamlin, Kevin McCarthy and explanatory journalism.
Richard Lee, executive director of the Jandoli Institute, is a professor in the Jandoli School of Communication at St. Bonaventure University. He covered politics and government as a reporter and later served as Deputy Director of Communication for two New Jersey governors.