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Why news coverage of the debate may matter more than the debate

- October 2, 2012

The upcoming presidential debates may not move the polls very much.  But if they do, credit may be due not to the candidates who have so assiduously prepared and practices, but to the media personalities commenting on the debate.

Consider this experiment.  In 2004, Kim Fridkin and other researchers at Arizona State University showed people footage of the third presidential debate, the debate plus 20 minutes of post-debate commentary on NBC, the debate plus 20 minutes’ time to read commentary on CNN.com.  So who won the debate, Bush or Kerry?  It depended on whether you watched the news.

People watching the debate tended to think that Kerry had won, as did those who read analysis on CNN.  But those who watched the NBC post-morten had the opposite impression.  Fridkin et al. write:

Our findings suggest that voters’ attitudes are influenced by the arguments presented directly by the candidates during the debate as well as by the media’s instant analyses of the candidates’ debate performances….the impact of the candidates’ messages was often altered by the media’s instant analyses.

Something similar happened in 1976.  As I wrote about in the Washington Monthly, Ford’s big “gaffe” saying that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe didn’t even register with voters until a day later, when the news had discussed his comment.

Or, if you are interested not just in the consequences of the debates for the horserace, but in how the debates shape citizens’ ability to focus on the substance of the candidates’ ideas:

The presidential debates offer viewers a lot of substance about the issues of the campaign but postdebate media coverage can undermine the value they have for voters, a new study suggests.

Results showed that postdebate coverage that focused on the debate as a competition led viewers to think less about policy issues. By comparison, coverage that focused on the substance of the discussion increased the likelihood that viewers would come away with specific thoughts about candidates’ policy proposals.

That’s from a new study by Raymond Pingree, Rosanne Scholl, and Andrea Quenette, summarized here (gated version here).

History suggests that the debates have rarely been game-changers, but if this year’s debates do move the polls, any credit (or blame) may belong to the media.