A Citizen's Guide to the 2012 Presidential Debates

October 01, 2012
Washington, D.C.

 C-Span debate(1)


A public program of the National Communication Association in partnership with the First Amendment Center at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

Over 80 million Americans will watch them, thousands of journalists will cover them, and hundreds of pundits will tell us what to think about them. Debating is the ultimate exercise of free speech and democratic deliberation in contemporary political life. But, in the end, too much of the commentary will center on “who won?” and “who lost?”

This interactive discussion between journalists and scholars of political communication, public deliberation and debate goes beyond the wins and losses, beyond the snap judgments and easy answers, and offers a citizen’s guide for watching and processing the hours of debating this election season. This event was broadcast live on a webcast and carried live on C-SPAN 1. Click here to watch the event on C-SPAN's video library.

Gene Policinski, executive director, First Amendment Center

Annie Groer, journalist and 1988 Presidential Debate panelist
J. Michael Hogan, professor, Penn State University
Charlton McIlwain, associate professor, New York University
Kathryn Olson, professor, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Sander Vanocur, journalist, panelist in the 1960 Presidential Debates

Recommendations for Presidential Debate Viewing to Go Beyond Wins & Losses 

  1. Check the candidate’s “truthiness.” Make sure that candidates adhere to the truth and are consistent in their use of facts. Use fact-checking sources to monitor the candidates and their claims. (Annie Groer, journalist)
  2. Watch debates with people who disagree with you about politics. You can learn much from how partisans and advocates for your opponents react to the debate. (Annie Groer, journalist
  3. Do your homework and be informed. Engaged citizenship means understanding and learning about issues and candidates. (Annie Groer, journalist) 
  4. Beware of snap judgments in the news. After the debate, turn off the spin doctors and pundits and make up your own mind about the candidates in the debate. (J. Michael Hogan, Penn State University) 
  5. Ask yourself “What did I learn from the debate?” Don’t worry about winning and losing, gaffes and mistakes and knockout punches. Focus on the knowledge gained from the debate. (J. Michael Hogan, Penn State University) 
  6. Try listening to the debates rather than watching them. Reduce the distractions of the video performance and concentrate on the arguments and the substance. (Charlton McIlwain, New York University) 
  7. Reach a judgment about candidates’ grasp of the facts and the information. Listen for verifiable information. (Charlton McIlwain, New York University) 
  8. Look for the performance of “democratic leadership.” How do the candidates manage being both democratic and leaderly, both common and extraordinary in a presidential debate? (Kathryn Olson, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)  

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