[Viewpoint]Debate format doesn’t work

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[Viewpoint]Debate format doesn’t work

Election campaigns in the past were all about how many people a candidate could bring together.
People would use the phrase, “a rally with 1 million people” to try to show a promising candidate’s popularity, so the camps made gathering supporters a priority.
However, times have changed. While the voters are the ones who cast the ballots, the media plays a key role in the election today. We can call it the age of media politics.
The days when the focus of the ground war was visiting local markets to shake hands with voters are gone.
Today, the over-the-air combat of reaching out to the voters through the media is more intense and has more impact.
In that sense, the debates broadcast on television are practically the only chance for the candidates to communicate directly with voters.
Voters see the candidates through the eyes of newspaper and television reporters. The candidate we see is the edited, integrated, added and subtracted version.
However, the television debates are different. We can see the genuine image of the candidate. The candidates’ policies, mindset, personality, attitude and even their slips of the tongue are conveyed straight to the voters, without any filtering.
In the television debate, the candidates have a public interview with the citizens. Therefore, there should be even more televised debates, and in a format that benefits the voters.
However, the people organizing the television debates are not doing their job properly this year.
The “Big 3 Debate” hosted by a television network has been canceled because the court granted a temporary broadcasting ban filed by the candidates who were excluded.
In addition, some of the candidates refused at the last minute to attend scheduled debates. Some were canceled; others were held with empty chairs.
The first of three debates hosted by the National Election Commission has been held, but it was a mere series of flat attacks and defenses, lasting only 90 seconds.
Because six candidates participated in a two-hour debate, each got a total of about 15 minutes to speak. That amount of time was far too short for everyone to cover issues regarding politics, unification, foreign policy and security.
As the candidates only got one minute to answer, they could only reiterate their messages, not actually argue with each other.
As there were no arguments and counter-arguments, the candidates didn’t bother to answer the questions. They said only what they wanted to say.
The focus of the debate pursued by the National Election Commission was fairness.
In order to have a fair election, the candidates are given an equal amount of time, and the debate included as many candidates as possible. Such fairness is an essential virtue of an impartial election. However, such fairness fails to benefit the voters. While debate might have been fair for the candidates, it was not necessarily the case for the voters. Voters have the right to know about candidates. Voters are entitled to see a proper debate. That’s the only way they can compare the candidates and make a reasonable decision.
How can we have a debate that is informative, beneficial and worthy, while still fair?
Instead of six candidates having a rushed debate in a limited amount of time, we can have several debates involving three candidates with similar levels of support, such as the leading candidates, the middle candidates and the minor candidates.
We should use a different debate format, not just asking routine questions and answering them for 90 seconds. With a limited amount of time to answer questions, the debates turn into a press conference.
To resolve the problem, each candidate should be given a set amount of time to speak. The candidate can divide the time for each issue to better represent his views. Also, there can be designated questions for certain candidates.
It is hard to pay attention to a boring and useless debate. When the television debates were first introduced in 1997, the program ratings were as high as 55 percent. Now the ratings have dropped to 23 percent. It is already too late for this year’s presidential election. In the future, we need to revise the election law and modify the regulations regarding the debates.
To help voters, the television debates should not only be controlled, but managed.

*The writer is a professor of communications at Sookmyung Women’s University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kang Mee-eun

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