Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Mass Communication

Document Type



U.S. democracy is one of the most inclusive in the world, yet levels of political knowledge and engagement remain markedly low. Moreover, the news media’s coverage of elections inadequately informs and engages the public. These shortcomings underscore the importance of campaign events like electoral debates – events that are designed not only to educate the public but also to provide the public a more active role in the electoral process. Journalistic news norms and values wield tremendous power over campaign news agendas – including post-debate coverage – but the extent to which they influence debate agendas remains unclear. Given what we know about patterns of campaign news coverage, a closer look at mediated debate agendas is warranted. To date, no comprehensive data on debate agendas exist. With a unique sample of debate questions spanning 52 years of electoral campaigns – including general election, primary, and state-level debates – this content analysis is the first of its kind to examine the debate agenda over time and across electoral contexts. This dissertation determines not only the extent to which news norms and routines influence electoral debate agendas but also the conditions (e.g. rules, formats, moderators, question sources) predictive of particular debate questions. In short, this study provides the first systemic insight into what influences the debate agenda and why we should care about the questions posed to the candidates. The findings presented herein suggest that debates are considerably more policy-driven than campaign news coverage; however, content and tone of agendas vary according to format rules, moderator characteristics, and question source. I find that local journalists offer a more substantive and less attack-driven agenda than members of the national press corps; that, contrary to expectations, nonprofit journalists are actually less substantive than commercial press in the debate questions they generate; and public influence through town hall formats does little to help nor hinder the substance of debate agendas. These findings are discussed in a broader democratic context, and the research presented herein offers organizers of these events best practices for future debates and recommendations for preserving their relevance and substance.



Document Availability at the Time of Submission

Student has submitted appropriate documentation to restrict access to LSU for 365 days after which the document will be released for worldwide access.

Committee Chair

Goidel, R. Kirby