Media coverage influences value of presidential debates for viewers, study finds

Coverage Type: reporting
Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, 43210, United States

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, a new study suggests.

Results showed that post-debate 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. The researchers conducted two different studies in which young Americans viewed actual clips from the 2004 and 2008 presidential debates and then read media coverage of the debate. Afterward, the researchers asked the viewers to describe the debate as they would to a friend. From these descriptions, the researchers were able to tell how the media coverage affected what viewers chose to focus on in reflecting back on the debates. "With the level of substance in the debates, there is some hope that this could be a positive moment in which people really engage in the important questions of policy," said Ray Pingree, lead author of the study and assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University. But whether viewers actually did that depended a lot on the media coverage. "The media have a strong influence on whether viewers think of the debate in terms of a discussion of the issues or simply as a competition between the candidates," he said.


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