Media Coverage of the Debt Ceiling Debate

While There Didn’t Seem to be Any Real Winners in the Debt Ceiling Debate, Media Outlets Took Full Advantage of the Drama

On Monday, politicians on both sides of the aisle begrudgingly passed a bill to raise the debt ceiling and reduce government spending. Both sides seemed dissatisfied with the bill, and the common perception is that no one came out a winner in this fiercely partisan debate. However, looking beyond the congressional chambers there was one group that did quite well in this debate—they waited right outside of every closed door armed with cameras and microphones.

The political media establishment provided around-the-clock coverage of every breaking detail as this story developed over several weeks. It is well understood that the media tend to reflect their audience’s tastes and preferences for content—so why were people suddenly fascinated by a complex economic debate surrounding the debt ceiling (a construct most Americans were not even aware of prior to this debate)?

 A likely answer is found in the way the media, and television news specifically, portrayed this debate for their audience. This was not a dry economic discussion, but a fierce battle between Democrats and Republicans, Republicans and the Tea Party, President Obama and Speaker Boehner, or President Obama and the most liberal factions of his own party.

Framing is a media technique that tells people how they should think about issues by emphasizing certain aspects of a given story. Framing effects are based on the assumption that how an issue is characterized in the media can have an influence on how it is understood by audiences. Here, we saw overwhelming reliance on the conflict frame, often referred to as the “horserace frame” in a campaign context. Issues are reduced to winners and losers, frontrunners, and underdogs, with each development somehow fitting into this broader framework.

This conflict focus should come as no surprise as existing research has demonstrated that the “conflict frame” is one of the most prominent in political media. While this framework fits best in an election context where there are actual winners and losers, journalists have expanded its reach to cover politics in the governing context as well. When a story can be easily molded to fit within this framework we tend to see exhaustive coverage with highlights on the most contentious parts of the story. That was certainly the case with last month’s debt debate. This story garnered so much attention that other stories which would normally have been of great interest to the media, such as the resignation ofCongressman Wu following a well publicized sex scandal (a story that fits well into another popular media frame—personality politics and personal scandal), went largely ignored in the press.

Of course, one might argue that the debt debate was inherently a story of conflict and thus the media simply reported the facts of the day. While there is some truth to this assertion we must also recognize which angles of the story were covered most prominently. Did we hear more about the details of each debt bill proposed, or the bickering, ignored callsabrupt exits and dueling press conferences of our nation’s leaders? CNN, for example, fielded a rather wide reaching survey about public opinion towards the debt debate, yet the questions they reported on air were those that dealt directly with conflict and personality. We saw graphics and reports on questions like, “Do you think the elected officials in Washington who have dealt with the debt ceiling in the past few days have behaved mostly like responsible adults or mostly like spoiled children?” or “Do you think Barack Obama and the Democrats in Congress are more responsible for that agreement, or do you think the Republicans in Congress are more responsible for that agreement?” While the more substantive questions like, ”Do you think the debt ceiling agreement would be good for the U.S. economy or bad for the U.S. economy?” or “Do you think that a failure to raise the debt ceiling by Tuesday would create a crisis for the United States?” were given only a cursory mention. 


The apex of this debate, and of the media coverage surrounding it, came on June 25th when The President took to the East Room to address the nation on the stalemate. As is normally the case with a presidential address, the speech was covered live by all three network TV stations (NBC, ABC and CBS) as well as the three major cable networks (CNN, MSNBC and Fox News). What was unusual was what came next. Less than 2 minutes after the President concluded, Speaker Boehner got in front of the camera to rebut the President’s speech and make his own argument about what was going on. Historically, the only time the opposition party gets airtime to respond to a Presidential address is following the State of the Union---this time all 6 channels carried Boehner’s response. For viewers across the country, these back-to-back pressers served to reinforce the conflict in Washington and made compromise seem increasingly unlikely.  

Why create a media event that reinforced people’s cynicism about American government and decreased their hopes that a debt deal would be reached? An answer can be found by examining TV ratings from the night of July 25th.  During primetime viewing hours CNN drew 1,318,000 viewers, MSNBC with 1,161,000, and Fox News with 2,884,000 viewers—quite a spike from their regular primetime ratings.

Interestingly, while TV audiences for these speeches were large, neither seemed to have a strong impact on social media discourse. While Obama and Boehner did see spikes on Twitter during their speeches, they were absent from the list of top ten trending topics for Monday. Perhaps this is because the TV audience, especially on cable news, is made up of more politically engaged citizens than those using social networks where celebrity and pop culture topics remained dominant.

President Obama's Address on Debt Ceiling Debate (07/25/11)---TRANSCRIPT

Speaker Boehner's Response to Presidential Address on Debt Ceiling (07/25/11)---TRANSCRIPT

Debt Debate Headlines:

Obama vs. Boehner: Who Came Out on Top?

Reid vs. Boehner – Who Wins the Debt Vote Royal Rumble?

Reid vs. Boehner: Dueling debt deals, a week before deadline

The Reid Plan vs. the Boehner Plan

Obama vs. Boehner

Debt crisis: The Tea Party vs. John Boehner

Experts Assess Winners And Losers in US Debt Debate

Debt Ceiling Debate: Who is at Fault?

Research on Framing Effects:

Iyengar, Shanto. "Television News and Citizens Explanations of National Affairs." The American Political Science Review 81, no. 3 (1987): 815-832.

Iyengar, Shanto, and Donald R. Kinder. News that matters: Television and American opinion. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1987.

Iyengar, Shanto. Is Anyone Responsible?: How television frames political issues. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1991.

Lakoff, George. Don't think of an elephant!: know your values and frame the debate : the essential guide for progressives. White River Junction, Vt.: Chelsea Green Pub. Co., 2004.

Nelson, Thomas E., Zoe M. Oxley, and Rosalee A. Clawson. "Toward a Psychology of Framing Effects." Political Behavior 19, no. 3 (1997): 221-246.

Scheufele, Dietram A, and David Tewksbury. "Framing, agenda setting, and priming: The evolution of three media effects models." Journal of Communication 57 (2007): 9-20.

Research on the Conflict Frame:

Cappella, Joseph N, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson. "News Frames, Political Cynicism, and Media Cynicism." The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 546 (1996): 71-84.

de Vreese, Claes H. "The Effects of Frames in Political Television News on Issue Interpretation and Frame Salience." Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 81 (2004): 36-52.

London, Scott. "How the Media Frames Political Issues." Scott London. http/ (accessed January 29, 2011).

Patterson, Thomas E. "Bad News, Bad Governance." The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 546 (1996): 97-108.

Wolfsfeld, Gadi. Media and Political Conflict: News from the Middle East. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Research on the Personality Frame:

Baum, Matthew and Samuel Kernell. “Has Cable Ended the Golden Age of Presidential Television?” The American Political Science Review 93.1 (1999): 99-114.

Baum, Matthew. “Talking the Vote: Why Presidential Candidates Hit the Talk Show Circuit.” American Journal of Political Science 49.2 (2005): 213-234.

Farnsworth, Stephen J, and S. Robert Lichter. "Trends in Television Network News Coverage of U.S. Elections." In The Handbook of Election News Coverage Around the World. New York: Routledge, 2008. 41-57.

Hayes, Danny. “Candidate Qualities through a Partisan Lens: A Theory of Trait Ownership.” The American Journal of Political Science 49.4 (2005): 908-923.

House, Kathryn Collier. "The View" from the Oval Office: The audience effects of presidential appearances on entertainment talk shows. Masters Thesis, Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University, 2011.

Patterson, Thomas E. Out of Order. New York: A. Knopf, 1993.

Prior, Markus. “Any Good News in Soft News?” Political Communication 20 (2003): 149-172.

Sabato, Larry. Feeding Frenzy: How attack journalism has transformed American politics. New York: Free Press, 1991.