The Debate Effect
In the coverage of the debates, this inside politics approach chosen by the press stands out even more. Nearly eight out of ten stories (79%) assessing the debates focused on political matters rather than where the candidates differed on issues, where they proposed to take the country or questions of character, record or veracity.
The majority of this pre-and-post debate analysis (43%) was framed around the candidates’ performance, particularly President Bush’s. Another 10% was framed as tactics and strategy.
One change that stands out this year is that 7% of stories focused around the veracity of the candidates during the debates-truth squadding their rhetoric. This is up from 3% four years ago.
Only 4% of the debate stories explained policy differences between the two candidates.
Another 9% of debate coverage amounted to straight news accounts outlining what happened and what candidates said, without any particular analytical or narrative theme.
The result of all this is that the vast majority of debate stories were written in a way that mostly described how the debates were likely to impact Bush or Kerry rather than how they might govern the country and how that might affect citizens.
As an example, a Miami Herald story on October 8 was devoted to outlining how different events in the news added “new aumunition” for Kerry in his upcoming debate with the President.
In all, fully 91% of debate stories were produced in ways that largely impacted politicians. This is up from 74% four years ago.
Meanwhile, as noted above, only 8% of debate stories were written in ways that made clear how these events might impact Americans. That is roughly half has many as four years ago.
Some may argue that focusing on impact of debates on the politicians is appropriate given that historically these events imply high risk for candidates who perform poorly. Others, however, may note that debates are also moments when voters are known to pay more attention, and get a clearer sense of a candidate’s positions and proposals. This year the debates generated higher audiences than four years ago(4).
(4) Lynn Elber, “Final debate pulls second largest audience,” The Associated Press, October 14, 2004.