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Eagleton Institute of Politics
Eagleton Institute of Politics

Research/Publications


Eagleton 2002 Recommendations for Better Campaigns
Focus on Debates and Media Coverage


September 2002

The Eagleton Institute of Politics makes the following recommendations to help citizens decide whether and how to vote. These particular recommendations, focused on debates and media coverage in the current 2002 campaigns for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, are based on Eagleton's research and discussions with leaders in New Jersey media, campaigns and politics and civic affairs.

1 - Candidates for U.S. Senate and House should participate in three televised debates.
Debates are a proven means to help voters get to know the candidates and focus on an election. Fewer than three debates deprives voters of an easily available opportunity to see and hear the candidates interact. Candidates need not participate, or be chastised for not participating, in debates that are not on television or radio, because these debates reach a small audience, often limited to voters already committed to one of the candidates. (The candidates for U.S. Senate have already agreed to debate more than three times.)

2 - Alternate formats for debates should be used to make the programs more valuable to voters.
Candidates and sponsors should agree to vary the standard question and short answer format to enhance voter interest and information. Suggestions for more engaging debates include: hosts and panelists coordinate in designing questions and topics; organize questions around issues; allow time for follow-up questions; design debates so that several 3-5 minute segments highlighting a particular issue can be repeated by stations during subsequent news broadcasts or shown as short spots within or between regular programming. Also, instead of or in addition to reporters, give voters an opportunity to participate in asking questions in an organized format which might include pre-filmed interviews with potential voters.

3 - New and more effective efforts should be used to advertise debates to reach New Jersey voters.
Newspapers and television outlets should take responsibility for publicizing the debates, whether or not they are involved in hosting and producing debates. Newspapers should publicize debates on television pages. In addition, all television outlets in New Jersey, together with the New York and Philadelphia network affiliate stations, should collaborate on presenting debates in order to reach most New Jersey voters. Debates should be shown in time slots most likely to generate the largest audience and rebroadcast in off-peak times.

4 - Television stations and candidates should agree to use a variety of formats for campaign coverage.
A variety of formats featuring the candidates should be produced, such as:
programs that have short segments (1 to 5 minutes) to be used within local news shows or between other programming;
conversations with candidates in a "Night Line" format for 10 to 15 minute segments;
and issue spots where candidates answer specific questions.
To increase appeal, vary the setting in which the candidates answer the questions.

5 - Media should expand campaign features with "citizens' interests" focus.
Campaigns should be covered from the perspective of what the voters want to know rather than focusing on campaign activities. Helpful news coverage includes shorter features, boxes with information, photographs and banners that call attention to campaign news. Voters report that campaign ad watch features are useful. Candidates should participate in call-in programs on radio and television, a format that directly engages voters.

1997 Suggestions for Better Campaigns
The 2002 recommendations for debates and news coverage build on the Suggestions for Better Campaigns that were the consensus of the 1997 Eagleton Campaign Forum. At the Forum held in February, 1997, political and civic leaders in a roundtable discussion agreed that New Jersey could have better campaigns if:
  1)  Candidates appear and speak in ads in which opponents are mentioned and follow the rule "say it yourself."
  2) Candidate ads avoid distorting the voice or image of opponents in ads.
  3) Candidates take responsibility for ads presented by independent groups to help their campaigns, and independent groups disclose information about who they are, and the source of their funds.
  4) Debates are frequent, well-advertised, conveniently scheduled, and have a format that encourages discussion among the candidates.
  5) News media coverage presents information about the candidates themselves, the issues and the accuracy of the ads.
  6) All three major players in campaigns – the candidates, the media and the public – take responsibility for better campaigns.

The New Jersey Project maintains a continuing effort to study campaigns in New Jersey. See the 1998 Study, "Not Bad, but Not Enough".