4.9: Media Spin in the Coverage of Political Debates

Political debates provide politicians with a platform to share ideas and information with their constituents and potential voters. At the presidential level, debates have become huge media events. Some 73 million people watched the first debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump in 2020.

Leading up to, during, and after the debates, political campaigns and partisan groups try to spin the results. Spin (also called political spin) is a term for how individuals use words and images to portray what happened in ways that put themselves or their political parties in the most favorable terms. Commentators, too, often spin the results of debates in partisan terms.

The origins of spin as a media phenomenon can be traced back to President Theodore Roosevelt, noted historian and journalist David Greenberg in his book, The Republic of Spin (2016). Before then, most newspaper reporters did not even cover the White House. But Roosevelt aggressively began communicating directly with the public as President. He gave Presidential addresses, participated in sit-down interviews with reporters, and went on speech-making tours around the nation. Since then, politicians have been using the media every chance they can to present themselves and their ideas in forcefully positive terms.

Meanwhile, news outlets, eager for viewers as a way to sell advertising, seek to capture and maintain audience attention.

How do these different agendas influence the way messages are framed to viewers? 

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In these activities, you will examine how news outlets covered the 2020 Vice Presidential debate between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence, then write purposefully biased reports in which you generate political spin about the event from different political perspectives.

Activity 1: Examine how News Outlets Covered the 2020 Vice Presidential Debate

Activity 2: Produce a Biased Media Report for the 2020 Vice Presidential Debate

Connecting to the eBook

Building Democracy for All: Presidential Debates in U.S. Politics

Connecting to the Standards