"Split screens" and "spin rooms": debate modality, post-debate coverage, and the new videomalaise.

Author:Cho, Jaeho
Position:Report
 
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The sizable body of research on presidential debates has confirmed that debate viewing "largely reinforces existing predispositions rather than substantially changing previously held images of candidates, issue orientations, or voting intentions" (Sigelman & Sigelman, 1984, p. 624; see also Katz & Feldman, 1962; Lanoue, 1992; Sears & Chaffee, 1979; Yawn, Ellsworth, Beatty, & Kahn, 1998; Zhu, Milavsky, & Biswas, 1994). Since conventional wisdom suggests that general election debates have little impact on political attitudes and judgments, scholars have shifted their attention to a broader set of debate effects. This second wave of scholarship has found that debates boost political knowledge and heighten issue salience (Carlin, 1992; Druckman, 2003; Kraus, 1988). Still, the focus has remained on campaign learning and issue alignment (Abramowitz, 1978; Benoit, Hansen, & Verser, 2003; Lemert, 1993).

One early effort to broaden this focus can be found in the work of Wald and Lupfer (1978) who studied whether the first televised presidential debate in the 1976 general election campaign affected general attitudes and basic orientations toward the legitimacy and trust of the political system. They predicted that exposure to debates would function as a "civics lesson," but instead found that watching the debate increased cynicism and reduced trust. This is not surprising given the structure and content of debates, for as they write, "after a debate devoted primarily to a criticism of present and proposed government policy, [it is] little wonder that viewers did not show an increased sympathy for government" (Wald & Lupfer, 1978, p. 351).

Mutz and Reeves (2005) found similar effects outside the context of presidential debates. These scholars asked whether incivility in political discourse can reduce evaluations of the legitimacy of political institutions. Holding the substantive policy conflict constant, they found that in response to the contentiousness, or incivility, of televised disputes in political talk shows, voters have reduced trust in government. Referring to these effects of viewing as the "new videomalaise," Mutz and Reeves (2005, p. 13) asserted that "not only were attitudes toward politicians and Congress affected, but levels of support for institutions of government themselves were also influenced." Equally important, some effects were amplified when a close-up camera shot was used in place of a medium range shot, suggesting that production choices in presenting televised political exchanges can impact viewers' evaluations (Mutz & Holbrook, 2003).

Although studied in the context of political talk shows, the current research has at least two important implications for the study of presidential debates. First, consistent with earlier work by Wald and Lupfer (1978), Mutz and colleagues (2003, 2005) hinted at the possibility that debate watching may influence not only viewer learning and evaluation of candidates, but also judgments of the legitimacy of the political system. The "new videomalaise" observed by Mutz and Reeves may also have implications for judgments of the credibility of news media, because spirals of cynicism stemming from conflict in the news spur negative evaluations of government and the press (Cappella & Jamieson, 1997). Indeed, judgments of news media may be especially influenced by these efforts to highlight the "game" or "contest" of politics because they are the source of "manufactured contentiousness." Second, the results of Mutz et al. (2003, 2005) suggested that the presentation modes of presidential debates may produce unique effects on viewers, above and beyond the content of the debates (e.g., what candidates say, and how they perform in the debates). Yet potential effects of subtleties in broadcast productions have received little attention in the scholarly research on televised campaign debates.

Recognizing this, the current experiment attempts to expand the work by Mutz et al. to the study of presidential debates by examining the effects of journalistic practices in covering presidential debates--the presentation format of televised debates and spin in post-debate commentary--on viewer evaluations. Specifically, this experiment investigates the direct and interactive effects of debate presentation format (single-screen or split-screen) and post-debate spin (policy focused or performance focused) on judgments of candidate character, government trust, and news credibility. Further, drawing on previous research that indicated the role political discussion plays in shaping individual perceptions of news bias (Eveland & Shah, 2003), the possibility that such effects of media format and content are conditioned by how much people talk about presidential debates is also explored.

The Crisis of Confidence

Although the conceptualization and operationalization of government trust and news credibility have been characterized by a lack of coherence, it is largely agreed upon that public evaluations of both have declined sharply over the last four decades (Burgoon, 1976; McCroskey & Young, 1981; Moy & Pfau, 2000; Singletary, 1976; Watts, Domke, Shah, & Fan, 1999). Given this decline, there is a tendency to focus on erosion and loss when labeling the general phenomena under study. Research on political trust used terms such as "political cynicism," "political disaffection," and "political alienation" to characterize the general decline in confidence in government and politicians (see Moy & Pfau, 2000; Pinkleton & Austin, 2001). Likewise, work on news credibility--usually defined in terms of judgments of trustworthiness and accuracy--can also be found under the rubric of "media mistrust" and "news bias" (Jones, 2004; Kenney & Simpson, 1993; Kiousis, 2001). Understanding the causes of this crisis of confidence in government and the press is the one concern this work shares.

Cappella and Jamieson (1997) placed the blame for this "spiral of cynicism" squarely on the news media, pointing to the journalistic tendency to highlight conflict between political actors. The general critique of media and their adverse effects on attitudes about politics and public affairs has a much longer history, however. Robinson (1975) used the term "videomalaise" to describe how viewing negative news coverage fostered pessimistic evaluations of political actors and institutions. Patterson (1993) specified and extended this critique, arguing that both broadcast and print news coverage that presented politics as a competition or contest eroded confidence in the political system and its participants (see also Hibbing & Theiss-Morse, 1995).

Empirical tests largely confirm that the norms of television production and the desire to construct news in ways that highlight contentiousness bear some responsibility for fostering feelings of cynicism toward politics and politicians. The "game-centered political coverage and the denigration of politicians' motives" is blamed for the deleterious effects of news viewing on judgments of democratic legitimacy (Mutz & Reeves, 2005, p. 2). Broadcast journalists engage in a number of routine practices that amplify the conflict-orientation of politics (Bennett, 2005; Patterson, 1993). Television may be most guilty of this style of news presentation, probably because incivility spurs greater viewer interest and higher ratings (Mutz & Holbrook, 2003). Ironically, as Cappella and Jamieson state, "the media's own sowing of the seeds of public distrust ... of political institutions and processes may have attached itself to the bearers of the information about these institutions--the news media themselves" (1997, p. 209). That is, the broadcasters' focus on the competitive features of politics is thought to start a spiral of cynicism that also infects the press. From this perspective, news that highlights the conflict among politicians adversely influences evaluations of both the subjects of these reports and their sources, a case of the public killing the proverbial messenger.

The Construction of Contentiousness

Most research that examines the effects of game-centered reporting on judgments of political legitimacy and news credibility focuses on the content of televised political conflict. The current research, however, is more interested in the form of this contentiousness reflected in the production practices of TV news, which often provides opportunities to heighten the sense of conflict, and to activate cynical responses (see also Bucy & Newhagen, 1999; Davis, 1999; Tiemens, Sillars, Alexander, & Werling, 1988; Zettl, 1990). Focusing on the production technique of the close-up shot, Mutz and Holbrook (2003) contend:

As political conflicts intensify on television, cameras tend to go in for still tighter and tighter close-ups. This creates a highly unnatural experience for the viewer, in which they are forced to view the televised person from a very intimate perspective, one that would be highly unlikely to occur with a public figure they dislike in any real world scenario (p. 7). Another presentation technique featured in the 2004 presidential debates was the use of the split-screen format that allowed viewers to constantly monitor the words, gestures, and reactions of each candidate. This style of staging may heighten the perception of conflict in much the same manner as close-up camera shots (Messaris, Eckman, & Gumpert, 1979; Zettl, 1990). The split screen technique explicitly presents the debate as a contest between opponents who display their contempt and disagreement for one another with every nonverbal, off-handed gesture, inaudible sigh, and shift in body language. Incivility is highlighted, as each sneer can be read as disrespectful, every grimace a sign of frustration, and even simple sips of water or looking over notes as inattentiveness.

In support of the view that the mode rather than the content of televised political exchanges can spur cynicism, Mutz and Holbrook (2003) found...

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