The 2008 presidential campaign found the political press embracing technology and interactivity like never before. (Or, at least, attempting to do so.) During the primaries, number-crunching delegate counters appeared on numerous news sites. Reporters and bloggers hopped on board the Twitter train while covering the Democratic and Republican national conventions. CNN’s color-coded “squiggly lines” tried to communicate how undecided voters were reacting in real time to the presidential debates. On election night, a holographic will.i.am showed up on CNN doing a body wave for Anderson Cooper.
Examine this smorgasbord of selections, and there emerges a mantra for the press: Don’t fetishize technology. We know it’s tempting to utilize gadgets for their own sake, particularly when you can (and/or feel you should). But as we saw throughout the election cycle, if technology didn’t help to make the journalism better, it didn’t quite matter what gadget, gizmo or pixel-magic was thrown into the pot: you ended up regretting the hologr—I mean, it.
What follows are some tech takeaways for the political press—reminders of why some stuff worked to great journalistic effect, and why other, more misguided attempts didn’t. Many of these takeaways are obvious, but perhaps in the examination process we can deduce how technology can best serve journalism, instead of the other way around.
Technology helped readers—and reporters—understand complicated issues
During the excruciatingly long Democratic primary, delegate counters popped up everywhere, from Forbes.com to the NYT to CNN. The Washington Post, for instance, featured an interactive delegate timeline based on AP data; hit play and the timeline showed how and when each candidate’s delegate counts evolved. Slate’s delegate counter was useful, allowing readers to calculate what it would take for either of the Democratic candidates to win the nomination. The delegate counters distilled difficult concepts, filtering a massive amount of information and presenting it simply, in a manner that contextualized and demystified the numbers in play.
At its best, interactive technology was used to explain and enhance understanding of complex stories—and readers and viewers were likely to appreciate the effort. The Los Angeles Times’s Web site ran a series of detailed interactive graphics about Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative to ban same-sex marriage, which narrowly passed. One graphic tracked funding by county (it was the nation’s costliest ballot initiative); another compared the Proposition 22 vote in 2000 (the last time same-sex marriage was on the state ballot) with the Proposition 8 vote—again by county. The LAT used the interactive graphic to begin to gesture towards a holistic picture of a topic that was sure to remain in the news even after the election—not only of coastal vs. inland voting differences, but of where the heaviest funding operated.
Nancy Scola, associate editor at TechPresident and sometime CJR contributor, says she was glad to see that, even after the election, “they still really dug into it. Sometimes we have these elections that say a lot about the country, but we never reflect on them in any meaningful kind of way.” The LAT put a premium on interpreting the numbers even after the election, and that, Scola thinks, was commendable.
There were, of course, also less effective examples of using technology to go deep. Slate’s Map the Candidates was a fun concept halfway botched by an overly intricate execution. Readers could track where the candidates were on any given day or week; Slate described it as a tool to “follow their campaigns virtually, and even find trends in their movements.” But it was frustrating to use: a cluttered presentation—symbols distinguishing between the parties (circles for the Democrats, stars for the Republicans), the candidates (blue and red for Obama, blue for McCain, yellow for the VPs), and their wives (pink)—and an overwhelming amount of supplementary information (articles and video clips) made for a visual cacophony. The idea (where are the candidates, and when?) was good, but the distractingly link-heavy Google maps format made it difficult to actually use it as a tool. In other words, even when utilizing technology to present news consumers with deeper portraits or patterns, simplicity can be a virtue.
If a gadget’s point wasn’t immediately clear, chances are it would distract rather than enhance