Monday, October 29, 2012

The power of image: Does TV influence our view of the presidential candidates?

A family mesmerized by JFK during the first televised debate
In 1960, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon engaged in the first televised presidential debate. Previously, debates had only been broadcast over the radio. One longstanding popular story about that first debate is that the medium through which people heard the debate affected who they believed had won. As the story goes, people who listened to the debate were more likely to believe that Nixon had won, whereas those individuals who watched the debate on the television were more likely to believe that JFK had done better. Why? On TV JFK was beautifully bronzed, young and able, while Nixon was sweating profusely and “looked like death.”

One artistic rendering of the first debate
I found myself in a similar experience during the presidential debates that took place this past month. During the first debate I started listening while in the car and then transitioned to the radio at home while making dinner. Then I realized that I could stream the video online and so I switched over to the televised version of the debate. But apparently I wasn’t the only one doing so, and the video kept freezing. Every time the video froze, I would turn the radio back on, switching back and forth constantly between audio and video.


Jumping back and forth between the audio and video versions highlighted for me how different those experiences are, and I was curious how listening versus watching might have affected my own view of the debate.  Well, it turns out the internet does hold the answer to everything. Jamie Druckman, a political scientist at Northwestern University had asked and answered just such a question. In a simple and straightforward experiment he randomly assigned participants to either listen to or watch the first debate between JFK and Nixon. His sample consisted of young college students who didn’t have any preconceived notions about who had won the debate.

Does it matter whether we watch or listen? It does.

Sweaty Nixon
Participants who watched the televised debate were significantly more likely to think that Kennedy had won the debate than were the audio listeners. Why did the televised version give a boost to Kennedy? Because people attend to different information depending on whether they watch or listen. Audio listeners were more persuaded by the extent to which they agreed with the candidates on issues, and television viewers were more persuaded by the personality of the candidates. That is, for participants who watched the debate (as opposed to listening to it), their opinion about who did a better job was strongly influenced by their beliefs about the integrity of the candidate. JFK was seen as having more integrity, and this helped explain why televisions viewers thought he did better than did audio listeners. In contrast, participants who listened to the debate were more persuaded by the extent to which they agreed with the candidate on the issues being discussed. All participants thought the candidate who exhibited more leadership skills did better in the debate, regardless of whether they watched or listened to it.

Watching the debate had another effect as well: participants who watched the televised debate did a better job learning the facts provided during the debate, and this was particularly true for participants who had less political knowledge.

Did any of you listen to the debates on the radio? Did you have a different take on who had won when you listened versus watched? I'd love to hear your stories!

The Article:
Druckman, J. N. (2003). The power of television images: The first Kennedy-Nixon debate revisited Journal of Politics, 65 (2), 559-571 : 10.1111/1468-2508.t01-1-00015

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