Thursday, April 17, 2008

Debates and What People Know

ABC is getting pounded for its handling of the latest Clinton-Obama debate. Tom Shales called it "another step downward for network news" The hosts "dwelled entirely on specious and gossipy trivia that already has been hashed and rehashed, in the hope of getting the candidates to claw at one another over disputes that are no longer news. Some were barely news to begin with."


Deserved, but ouch!

Okay, fine, but do people learn from debates?

The research on party nomination debates is thin, so I'm going to turn to the larger body of work done on presidential debates between the major candidates. In that work, the result is fairly straightforward. People do learn.

A meta-analysis sums up previous studies and tests them as a whole; that stats involved are a bit gruesome, so let's skip 'em. Benoit, Hansen, and Verser, freshly published this month in Communication Monographs, found that indeed debates do increase issue learning. Debates do not affect viewer's perceptions of the competency of a candidate, but they do influence how they view a candidate's personality and a host of other stuff, such as how important certain issues are (the ones discussed in a debate, obviously). It's a damn good study, worth reading if you're interested in debate effects.

I'm fascinated by the lack of an effect for competency. You'd think at least one of the candidates would come off competent. Journalists and talking heads in post-debate analyses go on and on about a candidate seeming "presidential." The research suggests this is more talk than reality. There's a surprise, that the chattering class have less influence than they might imagine, or that they get it wrong.

So what might people learn from ABC's debate? That Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos "turned in shoddy, despicable peformances," as Shales put it? I doubt that's going to surprise anyone who watches TV as it attempts journalism. But it sure as hell may increase the negative opinions about news in general, and that's never good. No, I think people learned that ABC wanted to get Obama and Clinton in a cat fight, and the candidates only barely obliged.

So maybe we learned something after all.

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