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Dialing in on the debate
As political pundits decide which of the presidential candidates won Tuesday night’s town hall style debate, Frank Biocca already knows.
“We can see immediately in the dials,” Biocca says, “when a candidate is doing badly.”
He’s not referring to television dials clicking away from the debate, but the dials on a device called a ‘perception analyzer.’
Biocca is a professor at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications, and also director of the Media Interface and Network Design (M.I.N.D.) Lab.
As part of a study on the 2012 presidential debates, Biocca and a team of researchers are conducting an in-depth analysis of computerized audience responses to key moments. They do this with the perception analyzer, a small, hand-held device containing a dial and a screen. The dial ranges from 0-100. Audience members watching the debate inside the Joyce Hergenhan Auditorium at Newhouse 3 turn the dial based on their reaction to what they see on the screen.
And they’re not just reacting to what the candidates are saying. Biocca says there are three key players in a televised debate: the two candidates and the TV director calling the shots behind the scenes.
“This is a media event,” says Biocca. “The way it’s staged has an effect on how people view the candidates. One of the things we can get from this data is the effect of things like camera angles and split screen responses. In the past we’ve seen, as the cameras go to close ups, the actual opinion of the candidate goes up. People have a warmer response as you zoom in. There is a certain connectedness people have with the candidate.”
While this information would be of value to the candidates themselves and can play a role in the outcome of the election, Biocca is concentrating on how opinion is formed (and how it changes), how moment-to-moment processing of the debate leads to emotional responses, and what creates a memorable moment.
“We’re interested in the formation of public opinion,” Biocca says. “We are looking at how the actual debate dynamics influence people’s opinion, as opposed to who is winning and losing.”
Even so, determining who came out on top isn’t hard to do. Biocca recalls the 1988 vice-presidential debate between Lloyd Bensten and Dan Quayle.
“Usually the dials (on the perception analyzer) tell me this is going to be a historic moment. The ‘You’re no Jack Kennedy’ punchline from Bensten (aimed at a Quayle remark regarding President John F. Kennedy) caused our dials to go nuts, and I knew from the response from the audience that this would be one of the memorable moments of the debate.”
It’s those memorable moments that may have the greatest impact on a political race, or even the sale of products on grocery store shelves.
“This can be used for other applications, including advertising” says Yoomin Lee, a visiting researcher at the M.I.N.D. Lab. “We want to explore the information processing pattern of an audience, and how those processes relate to their personal perception.”
That personal perception can relate to a political candidate in the race for the White House, or even a box of cereal.
Professor Biocca and his team of researchers will conduct one more sample, when the two candidates face off in their final debate before election day.