Disentangling Media Effects from Debate Effects: The Presentation Mode of Televised Debates and Viewer Decision Making

Article excerpt

This experiment examines whether the presentation mode of televised debates impacts how viewers assess the issues debated. Participants were exposed to a segment of televised debate on either a single- or split-screen. Candidate character and party attachment were more important in how viewers formed opinions of the debated issue with the split-screen than with the single-screen. On the other hand, in the split-screen condition, viewers relied less on pre-existing notions when forming opinions of the debated issue than they did with the single-screen condition. Such modality effects were particularly pronounced for those with low-levels of political attentiveness.

Since 1960, televised presidential debates have become a major event in American elections, attracting more voters than any other campaign event.1 Scholarly research has focused on the role that debates play in election campaign processes, yielding the general conclusion that debate watching impacts both viewer knowledge of campaign issues and evaluation of candidate issue stance and personal character.2 Despite the sizable body of research demonstrating "debate effects," it remains unclear what role the media play. Some would argue that most "debate effect" stems from the debate itself. That is, independent of the fact that the media transmit the debate, what changes viewer opinions is the actual performance of the candidates (e.g., what they say). From this perspective, as in the case of party conventions and press conferences, the media function merely as a channel conveying debates to viewers by broadcasting the event to a massive authence, most of whom would not otherwise be able to experience it.3

Although the media's role of linking politics to the public is certainly important, the role the media play in the political communication process goes far beyond this linkage. Defying the notion that media content simply mirrors reality, theories of journalism suggest that the media actively construct reality based on organizational norms and routines.4 When applied to televised debates, such a perspective suggests that a debate could be constructed in many different manners using a variety of presentation modes and editing techniques that are mainly under the discretion of the producers and editors. As Amber points out, broadcasters regard debates as a journalistic event in election campaigns and their decisions on how to deliver the events are often made to elevate the production values of the event.5 For example, despite candidate insistence that split-screen shots not be used, some broadcast and cable networks still covered the 2004 presidential debates in split-screen format because it provided good visuale (i.e., candidates' non-verbal reactions in a comparative context) and, thus, fit into the "media logic."6 As in the routine coverage of politics and election campaigns, the way candidate debates are presented is determined by the journalistic criteria of what makes a good story.7 Any differences due to the way the debate is delivered are then uniquely attributable to the decisions of the media.

Given this intersection of politics and media production, understanding debate effects requires a conceptual distinction between the influence of candidate debates and media coverage of the events, a point not previously the focus of debate research.8 It is, however, difficult for debate research to isolate and pinpoint which effects are directly attributable to the media when only general "debate exposure" is considered to identify the overall impact of televised debates. Thus, the present study seeks to disentangle media effects from debate effects by examining the effects of split-screen debate coverage on viewers' opinion formation. It is certainly true that the split-screen format is only one of many production features of debate coverage (e.g., shot angle, camera distance, cuts) and, thus, the effects of split-screen coverage do not sufficiently reflect the overall structural effects attributable to journalistic decisions. …