The Importance of Debate for Media, Information and Political Literacy

Važnost debate za medijsku, informacijsku i političku pismenost

The Importance of Debate for Media, Information and Political Literacy

Debate is a necessary exercise for any future engagement of active and responsible citizens in a democratic society.

photo: Zarja Marković

A debate is not an argument or a black-and-white "FOR and AGAINST" conflict, but an oratory exercise in which we state a problem and propose a solution. Ivana Kešić, leader of the Humanity in Action Foundation Debate Workshop, who also works as a program manager of the Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Education CIVITAS, explains this definition in more detail in an interview for Mediacentar.

Kešić was one of the lecturers and leaders of the debate camp "Strengthening media literacy competencies of young people in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH)", which was held at the end of May on Jahorina mt. as part of the "Youth for Better Media" project, which is funded by the European Union.

In addition to the basics of media and information literacy, camp participants had the opportunity to learn about what professional media look like, how to distinguish them from those who spread disinformation and propaganda, what is the role of the regulator and what self-regulation of the media is, and how to complain about non-professional media content and to whom. Special emphasis was placed on debating, and the young people applied the acquired knowledge by participating in several debates that served as preparation for the final debate.

In an interview with Mediacentar, Ivana Kešić emphasized that media and information literacy are necessary for debate, but also that they are developed, practised and improved through debate.

Often different forms of dialogue are called debate. Can you clarify what is and is not a debate?

A debate is an argumented and structured discussion. In debate, we learn how to think critically about different ideas and issues, look at them from multiple perspectives and how, with the help of the basic laws of logic, to analyse and connect evidence into valid conclusions, that is, how to defend our positions with arguments. For young people, who have not yet encountered a debate, we can explain it by saying what a debate is not:

A debate is not an argument. I often hear this at the beginning of each workshop, when I ask students if they have participated in a debate before. They usually respond by pointing out their "argumentative" potential or that they are not up for debate because they don't like to argue. At the same time, they perceive affirmation and negation exclusively as voting FOR or AGAINST. But that is not the correct understanding of debate. In a debate, it is necessary to respect the order of presentation, it is forbidden to interrupt others, it is forbidden to attack arguments by linking them to the person presenting, but exclusively by analysing and refuting the evidence presented by that person or the way in which they connect them. Debate, therefore, starts from respecting the other and his or her different position, and continues by presenting evidence that shows a different perspective - our different view of the problem.

In a debate, affirmation presents a new and different solution, a new and different view of a well-known issue and problem. Negation is not necessarily against that perspective, it acknowledges it to some extent, but it denies the need for change or the effectiveness of the new, proposed solution. This discussion between affirmation and negation, which is made up of exposition and cross-examination, allows us to look at the problem from several different perspectives and better understand it, and ultimately solve it. This is why debate is a necessary exercise for any future engagement of active and responsible citizens in a democratic society, for proper monitoring and analysis of parliamentary debates, critical examination of public policy, responsible analysis and forwarding of information we receive.

Finally, debate is an exercise in oratory, but its goal is not to confuse opponents with skilful oratory but to get to the truth. This is precisely what distinguishes the debate we have today in our "classrooms" (in the broadest sense of the word) and parliaments from the oratory promoted by ancient, Greek thinkers and whose logic of reflection we refer to. Unlike the Stoics, who wanted to confuse their opponents with questions like "Am I lying when I say I am lying" and thus ensure victory in the debate, debate forbids cyclic definitions and questions like this, definitions that are too broad or too narrow, confusing others, because its goal is to analyse, investigate and connect evidence, look at different perspectives of an issue, better understand and solve a problem.

Not every conversation and persuasion constitutes debate, it is stating a problem and proposing a solution to that problem based on evidence, as well as our willingness to respond to the evidence of the other side in defence of our positions, referring to relevant information from valid sources. Debate is therefore an exercise in critical reflection and logical reasoning, which is why, unlike other forms of dialogue/conversation, it is crucial for the development of media, information, and political literacy.

What is necessary for a debate to be successful?

First of all, we need debate to be a society of healthy dialogue. Public debate and the ability of citizens to think critically, question and analyse, prove and defend their views with evidence, respect other and different perspectives makes us a healthy democratic society.

In debating as an exercise, I always tell students that there are three steps that we need to go through in order to successfully master debating.

The first step is ME AND MY ROLE.

This is where we learn the logic of debate, i.e. how to collect, analyse and use information, how to check the sources from which it comes and how to use it to build arguments based on evidence to present and defend a thesis.

The second step is US AND THE ROLE OF THE TEAM.

Here we learn how to present our arguments as a team: how to introduce the judges and the audience to the problem and present them with the solution we are advocating, how to select key evidence that will help us convince the judges and the audience of the correctness and effectiveness of our thesis (our solution to the problem) and finally, how to prepare a closing statement in which we will not only repeat everything we have said up to that point, but point out what was said during the cross-examination: whether, when and how we managed to defend our arguments, and how and when, through the cross-examination dialogue, we defeated evidence and questioned the argument of the other side.

The third step or third element is OUR DEBATE.

This step concerns the very structure of the debate: what is crucial and important to present at the beginning, and what will we save for later presentation and cross-examination, what do we need to know about the other perspective and the possible evidence of the other side, how will we respond to them and how to refute this evidence.

Given that there are different debate formats, this third part also contains a lot of variable elements regarding the order and time of each speaker's presentation, but these rules are different depending on the debate format and can be quickly mastered just before the debate. The key to success in a debate of any format is in understanding the laws of logic and successfully building argumentation, as well as active listening and considering the other perspective so that we can adequately respond to it. Once we master that, we will certainly be successful in any debate format, but also in any public discussion, dialogue on important public policy issues and public advocacy.

Debate is open and beneficial to everyone

Does debating require any special skills and prior knowledge or is debating something that anyone can learn?

When it comes to the content of the debate, the topic itself, no. In fact, thinking we know everything or a lot about an issue and problem is the most common sign of failure because in a debate we first question and prove the position that we need to defend, we learn about the shortcomings of the policy – solution that we advocate, we weigh the advantages and disadvantages of that solution, so only then do we prepare to attack the arguments of the other side. If we think we know everything and blindly believe in the correctness of our perspective, we risk quality preparation and become an easy target or a weak link in cross-examination. In real life, we will make mistakes in the same way if we blindly believe and follow some principles.

Questioning one's positions, questioning the decisions of authority, understanding one's perspective and referring to evidence with which we will justify and defend our position, and only then questioning and refuting another and different position on an issue and problem, is also crucial for our daily life in a democratic society of healthy dialogue.

On the other hand, the skills and knowledge we need are active listening, critical reflection, knowledge with which we will check the sources of information – the sources of evidence that we plan to use, logical reasoning on which we will build an argument from all the collected evidence, and the ability to separate the important from the unimportant so that in a limited time we could succinctly present the essence of the problem and all the key evidence in support of our thesis.

Finally, my experience shows that students shy away from debate, stating that they are not confident enough in themselves and their public performance. Debate helps the development of self-confidence both as a practical exercise and as learning how to search for and use information, which in itself makes us more ready to present our new, researched knowledge to others. Debate is thus open and beneficial to everyone.

How to approach learning to debate? Do you have any recommendations for relevant literature, useful websites, etc.?

My recommendation to everyone learning to debate on their own or teaching debate is to start from the logic of debate towards the construction of arguments, and only then deal with different debate formats and their rules. I believe that both lecturers and students make the mistake of starting from the format, focusing on memorizing the order of presentations and the time, and all of this is variable from debate to debate. Instead, the focus should be on the laws of logic, argument building, media and information literacy, which, once mastered, can be successfully applied in any debate format, including public advocacy. There is a lot of literature, in our and foreign languages, and I would recommend the digital repository of the Debate Workshop of the "Youth for Better Media" camp to everyone, especially to those who want to discuss freedom of speech and the role of the media in the fight for healthy democratic society through debate.

See the repository at

or scan this QR code:                                


How can debate influence individuals, but also society as a whole, and help them participate in democracy? 

Debate in the classroom is a simulation of parliamentarism in which affirmation proposes some new solutions to problems recognized in the common interest and public good, while negation defends the existing state of affairs. Debate in parliament is a discussion between the position and the opposition, between the proposer and the convener. Debate is necessary for schoolchildren and students in order to better understand the political dialogue and to be able, through public advocacy, to get involved in it, that is, to realize their rights, protect their freedoms and solve the problems they face.

Can we use debate to improve media and information literacy and how?

In fact, the connection between media and information literacy and debate is much deeper. It is necessary to know how to check the information you receive, analyse and confirm the credibility of its source, compare different information and build arguments based on the evidence. In this sense, I would say that media and information literacy is necessary for debate, and then again, you develop, practice and improve your media and information literacy through debate.

Debate helps future journalists to focus on the discussion aspect in the preparation of their texts and articles. It enables them to recognize two different, independent sources, present different perspectives in the analysis and presentation of an important issue and problem to the public, and finally, leads them and their audience to uncover the truth. When it comes to students of other fields of study, as well as younger students of secondary and elementary schools, debate helps develop the skills of healthy dialogue, critical thinking, and openness to other and different perspectives, which strengthens their consideration of different ideas, responsible and conscientious analysis of information which they receive at school, from the media and other sources of information.