Media pundits wrote almost uniformly that Obama came out of the first debate with Romney poorly. New research led by Ray Pingree, assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University, suggests media coverage of the presidential debates influences how they affect voters!
Researchers conducted two different studies in which young Americans viewed clips from the 2004 and 2008 presidential debates and then read media coverage of the debates. Afterward, the viewers had to describe the debate to a friend. From these descriptions, the researchers found how the media coverage affected what viewers focused on when reflecting on the debates.
A “game frame” is one in which the media approach the debates as a sporting event. They discuss who won the debate, who looked best, and who appealed to certain key blocs of voters. A “policy frame” is one in which the media discuss the issues, such as which candidate supported certain policies and the reasons he gave for that support.
- The first study found that media coverage of the debate focusing on it as a competition between the candidates led viewers to think less about policy issues. Media coverage that focused on the substance of the discussion led the viewers to think about the candidates’ policies.
- The second study, in a different elections with a bigger and more varied sample, reinforced the first—people were influenced by the media coverage of the debates.
Professor Pingree said:
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. We need the media to treat the content of the debates more seriously. Viewers want to hear how their vote choice connects to real problems facing the nation and they want help from the media in figuring out which policies will actually be more likely to solve problems. There will be other times for the media to focus on who won or who looked better.
The media coverage had a strong effect on whether the viewers engaged in policy reasoning. Even though they all were exposed to the same clip, viewers who read the media article with the game frame—emphasizing who won the debate—listed the fewest policy reasons in their description of the debate. Those who read the article with the policy frame listed the most policy reasons. Those who didn’t read any coverage fell in the middle. Pingree said:
Even though all the participants were exposed to the same clip of the debate, they took away very different messages depending on the media coverage. Postdebate coverage that uses the game frame undermines the ability of debates to get citizens reasoning about politics.
They were influenced by media framing of the presidential debates because framing is often invisible to us. Pingree commented:
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. 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.