Do this, not that, when watching the presidential debate


Monday’s presidential debates will continue the theme we have seen during the campaign, a focus on attacks and accusations, which may be encouraged by the moderators. This makes for “good television,” but they are not necessarily beneficial to the electorate, who will see this as further erosion of the political process.

This election is a choice of the lesser of two evils. The extent to which Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will be able to attract new support or to restore lost legitimacy of the system will be their willingness to offer positive themes, narratives and coherent policies combining to form an optimistic vision of the future.

Here are some debate-watching tips:

▪ Watch the debate with an open mind. Of course, this will be difficult. Most people already know their preferences. But reach your conclusions about the debate unimpeded by the reactions or opinions of others. Remember, the debate will probably not change your mind, but it will offer opportunities for you to learn about important political issues. These issues are important no matter the candidate or office. And, like it or not, one of these candidates will be our president!

▪ Don’t follow live social networking during the debate. This colors your perception of the debate and cheats you of your own autonomy. Good listening means hearing it out before reacting.

▪ Install an internal “mute.” Do not engage in name-calling, glib generalities and fallacies — they discredit the user. Much, maybe most, of the debate may be irrelevant to your assessment of candidates and issues. Try to balance your emotional reactions with logical and ethical appraisals.

▪ Recognize the complicity of the moderators. They may frame the debate so as to be confrontational or to put candidates on the defensive for the sake of intentionally generated heightened tension, or the opposite, they may fail to follow-up with questions forcing the candidates to answer.

▪ Take notes. Really! Not verbatim, but enough to keep you focused. We pay better attention and learn and remember more when we take notes.

▪ Listen for your issues. Some things are more important to you than others, pay particular attention to how these are addressed.

▪ Be a critical listener. Resist being swayed by fact-inference fallacies, ad hominem attacks, straw persons’ arguments, and non sequiturs. (It’s worth looking these up, they have been the most common form of argument in the debates so far.) Most important, listen for proof and appropriately specific information. Ethical arguers back up their claims with evidence and reasoning.

8. Don’t believe what you hear just because they said it. Fact-check the debate after it’s over. Two good locations for fact checking are factcheck.org/ and politifact.com/. Politifact offers a wonderful free mobile app called Settle It! (politifact.com/settleit/)

David L. Steinberg is senior lecturer in communication studies and director of debate at the University of Miami’s School of Communication.