News Verdicts, the Debates, and Presidential Campaigns

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The most definitive report ever on verdict effects, this book gives striking new evidence that media assessments of presidential debates sway voters. The authors conducted 2,350 surveys and extensive analysis of news reports to scrutinize the post-debate news of 1988. They also examined the effects of the attack ads used by Bush and Dukakis. They found that the news media consistently downplay debate content and instead emphasize their own views on candidate performance--media verdicts influence voters as much as the debates themselves. Extensive content analyses and more than 2,350 surveys were conducted to analyze media verdicts on the 1988 debates. The verdicts on Bush, Dukakis, Quayle, and Bentsen announced in post-debate newscasts are compared with those from debates in 1984, 1980 and 1976. The study finds that the news media consistently downplay debate content and instead emphasize their own views on candidate performance. These media verdicts influence voters as much as the debates themselves. The study also examines the effects of attack ads used by Bush and Dukakis, and finds that they backfired--network news probably rebroadcast more excerpts of attack ads in 1988 than ever before. Television journalists, the essays in this book show, have become increasingly less interested in how the debates served the information needs of the voters and increasingly more preoccupied with how they affected the ambitions of the candidates. A noticeable trend in 1988 was as the fall debates went on, voters' beliefs that further debates would be helpful to them went down. Another finding of the study deals with a huge tactical error that the League of Women Voters committed by simultaneously announcing its withdrawal and blasting the format and ground rules imposed on it by the Commission on Presidential Debates. Also, the spin doctors who continually spouted insider information during the 1988 campaign gained more legitimacy and impact than ever before--and had a very strong effect on American public affairs journalism. This intriguing book, which also provides policy recommendations for the debates, their sponsors, and the news media, is useful to journalists, researchers, and civic groups concerned with elections, government, campaign reform, and communications.