Debating the Role of Debate Moderators

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

The upcoming U.S. presidential and vice presidential debates are high-stakes events for the candidates. The debates will also be defining moments for the five journalists tasked with moderating the conversations.

Each journalist will be scrutinized on a number of factors, such as the questions they ask and their ability to control the debate. More than ever, the journalists will also be judged on whether they decide to “fact check” the candidates’ statements.

The campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton called on moderators to correct her opponent if he lies during the debate. The campaign of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump believes it’s not the role of the moderators to fact check the candidates, however.

The truth is that journalists moderating debates – whether among presidential candidates or city council members – can’t allow blatant inaccuracies to go uncorrected. The journalists also can’t be expected to catch every lie or misstatement.

Journalists should seek truth and report it, according to the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. They don’t shed that responsibility just because they’re moderating a debate.

The truth is not partisan or biased.

If one of the candidates, for example, misstates the starting date of the invasion of Iraq, the moderator should be free to say the correct date is March 20, 2003.

Realistically, the journalists are limited by their own knowledge and certainty about a specific topic. The journalists shouldn’t barge into the discussion if they’re unsure about their own facts or figures.

The journalists also shouldn’t attempt to correct candidates on broad statements about policy issues, such as health care or national security.  Each candidate by now should be well versed in his/her opponent’s policies and ready to debate those matters.

So the question is not whether a debate moderator should correct candidates. The correct question is whether a debate moderator appropriately and fairly corrected the candidates.


Andrew M. Seaman is the ethics committee chairperson for the Society of Professional Journalists.

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