Not too long ago, perhaps my favorite show on television today made some pretty heavy criticisms about the way presidential debates are handled in the United States. In HBO’s series The Newsroom, genius news anchor Will McaVoy attempts to convince those in charge of the debates to change their style. He wants to grill each candidate about the issues and their policy stances, and not allow any of them to sidestep the question in any way, shape or form.
Of course, the Republican Primary Debate team wants nothing to do with it, and instead resorts to the typical debate highlighted by the question of, “What’s your favorite Elvis song?”
I won’t get into all of this too much, even though it’s not an issue of politics, but simply of informing the public and actually vetting our candidates. But as important as the content of the debates are, recent research from the Ohio State University suggests that the way the media frames the debate afterwards may be even more so.
During the 2004 Presidential Election, Ray Pingree, assistant professor of communication, had 698 college students watch the same five-minute clip of the first debate between Bush and Kerry. Afterwards, one-third read no media coverage, one-third read media coverage framing the debate as a contest, and the last third read media coverage framing the debate in terms of substance of the policies discussed. Note that both media reports were practically identical, except for a few key words and phrases that changed the framing of the coverage.
Afterwards, each student was asked to describe the debate as they would to a friend. Pingree and his colleagues – Andrea Quenette, graduate student at Ohio State, and Rosanne Scholl of Louisiana State University – were looking for sentences in which the students a “policy reason.” A policy reason is a statement for or against a current proposed government action, along with actual reasons for supporting or opposing the policy.
So just saying I like Romney because he supports tax cuts to the upper class doesn’t count; you have to say why as well.
The results showed that those who read the media coverage framing the debate in terms of policy came described the event with the most policy reasons, while those who read the “who won the debate” version had the least. Those that read nothing fell in the middle.
What’s more, the team repeated the experiment with the first debate between Obama and McCain in 2008, this time with 1,207 students.
They got the same results.
So as you can see, the media’s portrayal of the event is extremely important to what people walk away with from televised debates. Republican or Democrats aside, how about media outlets focus on the issues discussed and why certain stances would or wouldn’t help our country, instead of talking about who won, who looked the best, and who appealed to the most demographics?