Presidential Debate Influence May Depend More on Media Coverage Than Candidate Performance

After President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney face each other in Wednesday night's debate in Denver, Colo., one question will generate much discussion: "Who won the debate?" Post-debate media coverage can influence both how citizens answer that question and whether the debates lead to substantive thinking about the issues, according to research.

"The presidential debates offer viewers a lot of substance about the issues of the campaign -- but post-debate media coverage can undermine the value they have for voters," concluded a study published last month in the Journal of Communication.

The study conducted by Ray Pingree, assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University, Andrea Quenette, a graduate student at Ohio State, and Rosanne Scholl, assistant professor of communications at Louisiana State University, found that those who watched media coverage that treated the debate as a sporting event, discussing who won the debate or which candidate looked better in the debate, were less able to engage in policy reasoning than those who watched media coverage discussing the issues in the debate.

The study used two different experiments in which college students watched a clip of a presidential debate (one from 2004 and another from 2008). They were then divided in to three groups. One group watched no media coverage, one group read media coverage focusing on the policy issues in the debate and one group read media coverage focusing on which candidate won the debate.

The participants were then asked to write how they would discuss the clip with a friend. Those who read the coverage focusing on the issues, rather than candidate performance, were most able to engage in policy reasoning. Those who read the game-like post-debate coverage were the least able to engage in policy reasoning. Those who had no post-debate coverage fell in the middle.

In an Ohio State press release, Pingree noted that people are easily influenced by the way the media frames a debate because the influence occurs without them realizing it.

"If we think someone is trying to change our mind about something, our alarm bells go off and we resist the influence. But we don't often notice framing by the media, because we have our own thoughts related to both frames," Pingree said.

"Most people can think about political issues either as a game or as a substantive discussion of how best to solve a problem. What the media are doing is simply drawing our attention to whatever thoughts we already have about the game aspect -- which is the aspect of politics that is not as valuable to democracy."

In a Tuesday post for the political science blog The Monkey Cage, John Sides, associate professor of political science at George Washington University, noted that a 2004 study also found post-debate media coverage was an important influence on viewers' perceptions of the debate.

The 2004 study by Arizona State University political scientists Kim L. Fridkin, Patrick J. Kenney, Sarah Allen Gershon, Karen Shafer and Gina Serignese Woodall found that one's view of which candidate won a debate depended on the post-debate coverage.

Similar to Pingree et. al., Fridkin et. al. set up an experimental study using the third presidential debate between President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry.

Those who just watched the debate but did not watch or read post-debate analysis and those who watched the debate and read post-debate commentary on CNN mostly thought that Kerry won the debate. Those who watched the debate and watched the post-debate analysis immediately following the debate on NBC mostly thought that Bush won the debate.

The authors conclude that "the impact of the candidates' messages was often altered by the media's instant analyses."

Looking at both studies, Sides argued, "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."

The first presidential debate between Obama and Romney begins at 9 p.m. Wednesday, followed by post-debate analysis on most major networks.

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