Expert Commentary

The influence of debate viewing context on political cynicism and strategic interpretations

2011 study from the University of Texas at Austin in American Behavioral Scientist on the impact of presidential debate viewing on cynicism levels.


Research has shown that watching the presidential candidates debate on TV can lower levels of political cynicism in younger viewers. But in 2012 this demographic is likely to watch the presidential debates while simultaneously texting friends, flipping through TV channels, using a computer, tweeting reactions in real time — and challenging what actually qualifies as debate “watching.” Are these young people, known for their novel modes of political engagement, fragmented attention spans and media multitasking ways, still able to be influenced by these debates?

A 2011 study from the University of Texas at Austin in American Behavioral Sciences, “The Influence of Debate Viewing Context on Political Cynicism and Strategic Interpretations,” used experiments to assess how the viewing context of the presidential debates may affect how viewers may interpret politics with cynical eyes. The researchers arranged for participants to watch two 10-minute portions of the first 2008 presidential candidate debate between Barack Obama and John McCain, and then (a) play “Debate Bingo” with a card of campaign buzzwords during the debate; (b) fill out an “issues grid” that outlined relevant policy issues during the debate; (c) fill out a questionnaire that gauged his or her level of cynicism towards the debates; or (d) watch the debate footage with no additional actions (the control group). After watching the footage, all participants wrote a headline that described their impressions of the event. Nearly 100 young adults ages 18 to 26 from a large southwestern university participated in the study.

Key study findings include:

  • After watching the debates, cynicism levels remained at the same levels regardless of the different viewing contexts: “The context of debate viewing exerted little influence in participants’ political cynicism.”
  • With respect to the candidates’ level of politeness, participants who completed issue grids were significantly less cynical than those who answered the same question prior to the debate.
  • Twenty-six percent of those who filled out surveys and 12% of those in the control group wrote “strategic” headlines  — considered to reflect a cynical perspective — after viewing the debates that focused more on the debate’s competitive elements (such as “McCain Wins First Debate.”)
  • Only 4% of those who completed an issue grid, and none of the participants in the bingo group, however, wrote strategic headlines; researchers suggested that “it is possible that playing bingo or filling out the issue grid while watching the debate led participants to focus less on who was winning and to focus more on other aspects of the debate.”

The researchers identified elevated levels of cynicism in the post-debate headlines of the survey group, but noted that this group also expressed more cynicism before viewing the debates as well. “Perhaps merely thinking strategically is insufficient to produce heightened cynicism. It is possible that respondents also need to see the news media legitimize a strategic frame through its coverage of the debate winner before cynicism is affected.”

 Tags: youth, presidency

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