Since their re-introduction in 1976, televised debates have become an integral part of presidential campaigns. Political debates have several important advantages over other kinds of campaign messages. First, they give voters a chance to see and contrast the major candidates face to face, addressing the same topics at the same time. Second, their length is noteworthy: "As messages running an hour or longer, debates offer a level of contact with candidates clearly unmatched in spot ads and news segments.... the debates offer the most extensive and serious view of the candidates available to the electorate" (Jamieson, 1987, p. 28). Third, although candidates prepare extensively for these encounters, unanticipated questions or comments from an opponent may elicit spontaneous remarks that can give voters a more accurate view of the candidates than do highly scripted speeches or television spots. Fourth, debates afford candidates the opportunity to refute false or misleading statements from opponents at the time those statements occur, rather than later.
Scholars have studied presidential debates extensively (books include Benoit & Wells, 1996; Bishop, Meadow, & Jackson-Beeck, 1978; Bitzer & Rueter, 1980; Carlin & McKinney, 1994; Coleman, 2000; Friedenberg, 1994, 1997; Hellweg, Pfau, & Brydon, 1992; Hinck, 1993; Jamieson & Birdsell, 1988; Kraus, 1962, 1979, 2000; Lanoue & Schrott, 1991; Martel, 1983; Schroeder, 2000). However, news coverage of these events has received relatively little scholarly attention. This is unfortunate because "news commentary does influence viewers' perceptions about debates" (Hellweg, Pfau, & Brydon, 1992, p. 99).
One exception is Kendall (1997), who investigated television network news coverage of the 1996 presidential debates:
Media interpretations have been found to follow a pattern: They devote little time to the content of the debates, and much time to the personalities of the candidates and the process by which they make the decision to debate, prepare to debate, and "spin" the stories about expectations for and effects of the debate. (p. 1)
Kendall found that 9 of 31 lead stories concerned the campaign and 7 more were about the debates. She also reported that these stories tended to discuss the relationship of the debates to the campaign and that "the candidates' own words in the debates" were "seldom shown" (p. 5). Thus, some research indicates that television news coverage of debates offers little of substance. Benoit and Currie (2001) explain that timing is probably a factor:
Presidential debates are always held in the evening after the network news. By the time the evening news has the opportunity to discuss the debates--on the day after the debate--the debates are now roughly 20 hours old and hardly news. Thus, television news has already moved on to discussion of reactions to the debates. It is unfortunate that this means that the evening news rarely reports on what transpired in the debates. (p. 37)
Hence, it may be more fruitful to focus on newspaper rather than television coverage.
Although debate viewership has tended to decline over the years (Commission on Presidential Debates, 2003), neither candidates nor scholars can afford to ignore a message that has been seen by at least 36 million voters in every campaign (and by as many as 80 million in 1980). The Racine Group (2002) concluded that "while journalists and scholars display varying degrees of cynicism about the debates, few deny that viewers find them useful and almost no one doubts that they play an important role in national campaigns" (p. 201). Benoit, Hansen, and Verser's (2003) meta-analysis found that watching debates can increase issue knowledge and issue salience, have an agenda-setting effect, alter perceptions of the candidates' personality, and affect vote preference. Clearly this message form merits scholarly attention. …