ADP hosts first fall panel, “What Wikipedia Won’t Tell You”

Panelist Alan Schroeder is a professor in the School of Journalism at Northeastern University in Boston.
The American Democracy Project (ADP) at RIC and NBC 10 recently hosted a panel of experts in the fields of politics and communication to explore the inner workings of what goes on before, during and after debates.

The panel, titled “Political Campaign Debates: What Wikipedia Won’t Tell You,” took place on Sept. 13 in Alger Hall room 110, and was moderated by Bill Rappleye, political reporter for NBC 10 and WJAR. Topics discussed included the importance of political debates, how candidates stay fresh, “spin” in the media after a debate and how debates will change in the future.

Alan Schroeder, a professor in the School of Journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, opened the panel by suggesting that debates are vital to the political process.

“[Debates] put candidates on the spot. It’s like a job interview, where candidates lay out their qualifications and then say to voters, ‘hire me,’” said Schroeder. “It is an intimate transaction.”

Mike Trainor, who served as interim campaign manager in the 2010 Chafee for Governor campaign, agreed with Schroeder, suggesting that “debates in America are as American as apple pie.”

Another subject candidates face in political debates is how to stay “fresh” and up to date. Trainor suggested that focusing deeply on one particular issue for “micro-debates” shows both the candidate’s preparedness and their ability to focus on many topics of concern.

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Edward Fitzpatrick, political columnist for The Providence Journal, agreed with Trainor. “Candidates are often predictable and repetitive,” Fitzpatrick said. “My worst fear as a reporter is to ask a question and hear the same response every time. A government official has to be concerned with all of these issues. It is like a tug of war, and I only win with something fresh.”

The topic of “spin,” a bias in the media that can be for or against a particular candidate, was another point of discussion for panelists. Fitzpatrick suggested that though columnists have more freedom than reporters to insert their own opinions, reporters must strictly give the facts.

“You just have to take what you hear with a grain of salt,” he said.

Kate Coyne McCoy – the president of KCM Consulting firm who sought the Democratic nomination in R.I.’s 2nd congressional district in 2000 – took a different stance on the subject of spin.

“It is a big part of my job to influence what others think,” she said. “A smart campaign team tries to figure out what they want the headline to be the next day, and a smart campaign manager implements strategies to motivate that headline.”

David Segal is the executive director for Demand Progress, an activism group working to promote Internet freedom, civil liberty and election reform.
McCoy also reiterated the significance of candidates being prepared for every component of a debate down to the smallest details, from how they sit in their chairs, to the temperature of a room, to the height of the candidates they will be standing next to.

The issue of social media playing a role in current and future debates was the final hot topic among panelists.

David Segal – executive director for Demand Progress, an activism group working to promote Internet freedom, civil liberty and election reform – said that online spheres like Reddit and Twitter allow candidates the ability to show their “authenticity.”

On the other hand, panelist John Robitaille, who served as Republican nominee for governor in 2010, stated “the value of visual speaking” makes a different impression on an audience than if they were just learning about the candidate online.

Fitzpatrick suggested that one danger of online communication is that candidates could appear too scripted; by being in front of a physical audience, politicians are more likely to think on their feet.

Schroeder built on Segal’s argument, stating that online communication allows audience reactions to be observable in a debate from start to finish, rather than waiting until the end for feedback. Social media, which is more popular to America’s youth, provides an outlet for them to participate in politics when they normally would not, said McCoy.

The ADP will host a DebateWatch in collaboration with the Community College of Rhode Island on Thursday, Oct. 3, in the Field House on CCRI’s Knight Campus. Immediately following the debate will be a discussion where participants may share their opinions with one another.

For the full schedule of the American Democracy Project’s fall events, visit