Media History Exchange, 2018 Joint Journalism and Communication History Conference

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‘Give It Hell, John’: The Fighter Metaphor in News Coverage of a Senator’s Cancer Diagnosis
Cherie Henderson

Last modified: 2018-01-25


When Sen. John McCain announced in July 2017 that he had an aggressive brain cancer called glioblastoma, the consensus was clear: McCain is a fighter. “Cancer doesn't know what it's up against. Give it hell, John,” tweeted former President Barack Obama. Similar quotes peppered newspaper and broadcast coverage of the diagnosis, invoking the mythology of a virtuous hero facing down an enemy – especially potent here because of McCain’s history as a Vietnam prisoner of war.

My goal is to show that fighter metaphor persists despite decades of protest from prominent thinkers like Susan Sontag, and that this ubiquity has consequences for patients – in other words, for everyone. This paper reviews U.S. print/web news articles and broadcasts to show how almost all of the initial reporting on the diagnosis drew on the fighter metaphor, largely by using direct quotes. Most recall that McCain was a prisoner of war, while few provide detail on his long political career beyond his presidential nomination. They vary in how they present his prognosis, from giving a specific survival rate to speaking more generally or ignoring the question. Straight-news reporting contained little reporter commentary, while morning news programs offered words of encouragement.

First-person opinion pieces – columns and letters to the editor – ranged widely in using the fighter metaphor, from a defiant prediction that McCain must defeat his cancer to caregivers’ pleas to retire the metaphor. I also look back to reporting on the glioblastoma diagnosis of Sen. Ted Kennedy in 2008, which included some fighter metaphors but also drew on another mythology, that of the Kennedy family tragedies.

Next, I address potential objections to the idea that the use of fighter metaphors was out of reporters’ control. Finally, I consider three variables that affect the metaphor’s impact: the fact that McCain survived five years as prisoner of war, the way each news report is framed, and the way reporters select information as they turn events into narrative.

I acknowledge that readers may expect fighter metaphors from their leaders and even from journalists themselves, as a show of humanity and as an antidote to the potential callousness of “objective” reporting on a devastating diagnosis. This raises the question of how far can or should journalists go in retraining people to reject the fighter metaphor in reports about cancer and other illnesses. That said, myths like the cancer fighter persist only as long as they are retold (Bird and Dardenne, 1988). I conclude by offering potential strategies for journalists who agree that the fighter metaphor is problematic.


Bird, S. Elizabeth, and Robert W. Dardenne. “Myth, Chronicle & Story: Exploring the Narrative Qualities of News.” Media, Myths, and Narratives: Television and the Press, Sage Publications, 1988, pp. 67–86.n/a

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