The Influence of Medium and Media Commentary on Presidential Debate Effects
Lori Melton McKinnon University of Alabama
John C. Tedesco University of Oklahoma
Contemporary debates are unique phenomena precisely because they are televised political events. Not only are debates one of the only forums where modern candidates actually confront one another, but they also have emerged as central events in political campaigns. Indeed, research indicates that debates carry substantial weight with the electorate.
Presidential candidates Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy changed the face of political debates when they agreed to have their 1960 debate televised. Although 16 years passed before the next televised debate for presidential candidates Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, research interest remained high. McLuhan ( 1964) wrote that televised debates would turn our living rooms into voting booths and that such privatization of politics would yield an electorate of passive observers rather than active participants in the political process. Fortunately, McLuhan's predictions did not prove true.
In fact, research shows that televised debates attract an attentive audience of voters who rely on debates for contrasting and comparing political candidates. Indeed, televised debates continue to be among the most watched programs ever broadcast, far surpassing typical audience shares ( Hellweg, Pfau, & Brydon, 1992). Voters watch debates to learn about issues, to learn about candidate personalities, to decide who to vote for, and to fulfill a sense of civic obligation ( Sears & Chaffee, 1979).
The vast public interest in these televised political events has led political communication and mass communication scholars to investigate debate