Locals split on YouTube debate

Wednesday, July 25, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:40 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008
Democratic presidential hopefuls faced questions from the public online during Monday night’s YouTube debate in Charleston, S.C.

COLUMBIA—The CNN-YouTube collaboration on the Democratic presidential debate Monday night was new, and in that way a success, but it didn’t go far enough in engaging the public, said an MU communications professor.

Mitchell McKinney, who studies presidential debates, favors live chats, which are scheduled online conversations, as a way for citizens to be able to follow up on their questions with candidates.


To see the video submissions and their responses, go to To see the entire debate, go to

“One person who submitted a video was actually at the debate,” McKinney said, referring to Revlongcrier, as he is known in the world of YouTube, an online video repository. “After the candidate responded to his question, he claimed they didn’t really answer his question and the candidates had to do it again.

“While this is new technology, it’s not an interactive medium.”

More than 3,000 videos were submitted for the presidential debate on topics such as the Iraq war, gay rights, cancer and — raised by someone dressed as a snowman — global warming. On the receiving end, standing at podiums on a red, white and metallic stage in South Carolina, were eight of the Democrats running for president.

It was CNN’s job, not the viewers’, to narrow the number of submissions to just 39 videos, which popped up on a giant screen during the broadcast.

“I think that was a disadvantage,” McKinney said. “Even with the new technology, we were reliant upon media representatives to pick the actual questions.”

Viewers such as Brianni Nelson, senior chairwoman of black programming for the Missouri Students Association, thinks the YouTube debate was a much needed change of pace.

“Typically politicians are all going to have similar backgrounds — may that be race, gender or socioeconomic standing,” Nelson said. “These questions housed a variety of demographics.”

Nelson also thinks the debate’s YouTube aspect attracted a whole new audience.

“I think younger people are much more in tune with this type of technology, like submitting videos,” she said.

McKinney agreed.

“Younger voters have always been a group that is not as politically active,”he said. “This medium of communication is more likely to be used by younger voters, and that can have a positive impact.”

McKinney compared the YouTube debate to a global extension of a town hall meeting, allowing citizens to stand up and directly speak about the issue at hand.

“We are finding new ways to gather citizens’ voices,” he said.

Unlike a traditional presidential debate, this one offered a wider range of questions, he said.

“They talked about the popular Iraq and health care,” McKinney said. “But then we also heard about a whole range of topics, many of which the candidates had not directly addressed in the past.”

Phyllis Fugit, chairwoman of Boone County Democrats, watched the debate from a booth at the Boone County Fair.

“I think this was better than debates in the past.” Fugit said. “The questions were spontaneous, and (the candidates) didn’t have time to prepare.”

Now that the first such debate has happened, McKinney thinks the Republican party will have an advantage when they converge for the next CNN-YouTube debate on Sept. 17.

“I think they will have more of an idea of what kind of questions to expect,” he said, adding that he thinks CNN will choose questions similar to those in the Democratic debate.

The Boone County Republicans couldn’t be reached Tuesday.

Although she did not watch the debate, Esther Thorson, interim dean of MU’s School of Journalism, watched the day-after coverage.

“I was impressed with how effective it was to have ‘real people’ asking questions,” Thorson said. “The whole process seemed more interesting and relevant.“

McKinney’s research suggests that people report learning more during a more straightforward debate.

“Journalists tend to try to impress their colleagues with their extensive knowledge on the subject,” he said, referring to traditional political debates. “But this often ends up confusing people and they have trouble understanding the politics.”

To convey what this type of debate means for the future of journalism, Thorson went on to quote “The Elements of Journalism,” a primer on the basic tenets of American journalism.

“Bill Kovach (the author) says that one of the most important functions news must serve is making the ‘important’ interesting and relevant,” she said. “I think the YouTube debate did just that.”

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