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CNN Student News Learning Activity: Debates Viewing Guide

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(CNN Student News) -- Use the following activity to help students interpret televised political debates.

Televised debates have become a traditional and integral part of the election process. Debates can introduce voters to candidates' positions on key campaign issues. They can also enable voters to judge the temperament, knowledge, communication skills and personalities of the candidates.

Debates can take a variety of formats. One format uses a panel of experts or journalists to ask the candidates questions. In a single moderator format, one person is selected to question the candidates. A town hall meeting debate format gives audience members the opportunity to directly question the candidates. In most formats, candidates are given a limited time to answer the questions. The topics addressed at debates can be wide-ranging, or the questions may center on select themes or issues.

Some critics of modern televised debates prefer allowing direct cross-examination by the candidates, without any intermediaries. Other debate experts suggest allowing voters across the country to pose questions directly to candidates in person, or live via phone or e-mail.

Regardless of the debate format, there are several things that viewers can do to get the most out of televised debates. Consider the following activities and questions before, during and after watching a debate:

Before the Debate:

Decide what issues are important to you. (Refer to http://www.publicagenda.org/ to explore multiple perspectives on key issues.) Where do you stand on these issues?

Determine what qualities you want most in a presidential candidate. (Are you more interested in the candidate's stance on the issues or his/her image and personality?)

Find out which candidates will be participating in the debate. Get some background information on the candidates. (See http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2008/ to learn more about where the current candidates stand on the issues.)

Create a list of questions that you would want to ask the candidates.

During the Debate:

Take notes on what questions are asked and how the candidates respond to these questions.

As you take notes, identify the following:

  1. The topics or issues that are discussed in the debate
  2. Whether the candidates provide clear answers to the questions
  3. Whether the candidates offer solutions to the problems stated in the questions
  4. If the candidates use facts to support their arguments or use "emotional appeal"
  5. If the candidates differentiate between their plans and those of their opponents
  6. Whether the candidates connect with the audience

After the Debate:

  1. What did you learn about the candidates and the issues?
  2. What questions, if any, do you still have about the candidates and their stances on the issues? What criteria would you use to determine the "winner" in the debate?
  3. Which candidate do you think appeared "most presidential"? Do you think that this debate was a valuable tool for evaluating the candidates and their stances on the issues? Why or why not?
  4. Which candidates most closely align with your views on the issues?
  5. How did the information presented in this debate compare with other debates throughout this election process thus far?
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