Why News Coverage of the Debate May Matter More than the Debate

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.

(Hat tip to Kevin Collins for tweeting the Fridkin et al. graph earlier today.)

4 Responses to Why News Coverage of the Debate May Matter More than the Debate

  1. Josh R. October 2, 2012 at 10:49 am #

    “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.”

    Don’t forget social networks and communication within them too (two-step flow of information and what not)! There was an article in a recent Political Communication on this.

    As a separate question: the post above is focused on the mass public, but is there any evidence that the debates influence elite behavior, such as donating behavior, (other than the media) and/or activists?

  2. Marie Burns October 2, 2012 at 10:56 am #

    Thanks. Bob Somerby of the Daily Howler would agree. He writes, in part,

    “After that first Bush-Gore debate, five major news orgs conducted ‘overnight polls,’ surveying people who watched the debate. Gore was the winner in all five surveys … by an average margin of ten points…. Did George Bush win that first debate? Only after the press corps began playing videotaped loops of Gore’s troubling sighs (with the volume cranked, of course).”

    Somerby’s full post is at http://dailyhowler.blogspot.com/2012/09/the-mainstream-press-corps-standard.html

  3. Marshall October 2, 2012 at 10:20 pm #

    One reason I watch the debates is to see just how in the tank the media are. The Reagan-Carter and Bush-Gore debates are both ones where I thought that there was no question who won, to the degree that I wondered just what debates the network news commentators had actually been watching. Hopefully, with the rise of Internet it will no longer be possible to place the media thumb quite so firmly on the scale.

  4. lukuj October 3, 2012 at 11:12 am #

    I wouldn’t be surprised if much of the MSM has not already prepared their reviews or part of their reviews of the debate. They already have a list of the criticisms they want to make of Romney and only have to find a place to insert them. They already have a list of praises and excuses for Obama and will just insert them in the best places. They have already, in their minds, declared Obama the winner, and will do so again after the debate.