Election Postmortem: Technology and the Press

Don't fetishize technology

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

Everybody who watched the presidential debates remembers CNN’s foray into undecided voter dial-testing—otherwise known as the “squiggly lines” and “worms” that appeared at the bottom of the TV screen. The lines moved according to the feelings of a small group of dial-wielding undecided Ohioans watching the debate together in a room. The methodology was confusing: the undecided voters were told to turn the dial according to their positive and negative responses to the debate, but were left alone to decide what constituted positive or negative. The presentation was equally confusing: there was no standard against which to measure the undecided voters’ reactions, no labeled axes or plot points, and no explanation of how they should be read.

Sam Boyd at The American Prospect, in a thorough post about the graph, noted that it was best thought of as what CNN’s election-coverage producer David Bohrman described as “not unlike hearing the crowd cheering or booing.” But because it was unclear whether it was diversionary or instructive, it ultimately just became a distraction.

CNN seemed determined to corner the market on distracting, purposeless election technology. On election night, holographic correspondents Jessica Yellin and will.i.am shimmered in front of Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper, in scenes reminiscent of Star Wars (both the movie and the bloated, expensive government program). Yellin talked about the crowd in Grant Park, while will.i.am. discussed his “Yes we can” video in support of Obama; their appearances as holograms, rather than, say, via video feeds, seemed arbitrary and meaningless. While CNN hyped its holograms as a more intimate way of bringing the correspondents into the studio, the anticipatory chatter was lively for a different reason—less “CNN wants to advance the way we communicate news” and more “whoa, CNN is doing what???

The Chicago Tribune estimated that the gimmick cost $300,000 to $400,000. And, ratings-wise, it was worth the expense. As Lisa de Moraes reported in The Washington Post:

CNN’s 13.3 million viewers, garnered between the start of prime time at 8 and the end of President-elect Obama’s speech at about 12:30 a.m., is not only the biggest audience in the cable net’s 28-year history but also marks the first time the cable news network made a clean sweep of all the broadcast and cable networks on election night. Its closest competitor, ABC, logged 12.5 million in those same hours. NBC and CBS lagged with 12 million and 7.5 million, respectively.

CNN’s bid to be election night’s technological frontrunner was, in that sense, successful. But it’s clear (and unfortunate) that the Princess-Leiafication of the evening was a blatant and extravagant way to boost ratings and garner attention—all without adding anything of substance to the broadcast.

According to Ramesh Raskar, an associate professor of media arts and sciences at MIT and a researcher at its Media Lab (he heads its Camera Culture research group), one of the more exciting aspects of this type of holographic technology is that “it allows viewers to be closer and closer to the event.” Raskar says the technical aspects of the hologram pleased him, but notes that he was “disappointed by its being used to essentially disengage [the correspondent, Jessica Yellin] in Chicago from the audience around her,” and wishes that CNN would have used the technology to actually allow viewers to get a better impression of the crowd. “If you think about all the YouTube videos you have of people running into Grant Park and cheering and responding to the speech, I think that needed to be brought in with this sort of transporting technology,” he says. In its quest to incorporate high-tech gadgetry into its broadcast (some of it very good), CNN dropped the ball on questioning why and how it was using some of it.

It’s not just about holograms and Magic Walls

As soon as she got her own show on MSNBC, Rachel Maddow immediately got a Twitter account to alert her viewers to guest line-ups, and made podcasts of the show available on iTunes, where they have regularly been among the most downloaded. (Twitter is a micro-blogging platform that restricts its post length to 140 characters or less—about a line or two of text.) Twitter and podcasts may not be as flashy as a hologram, but, used well by journalists, they can help create a community of loyal and informed viewers.

During the campaign, reporters and bloggers used Twitter to broadcast their immediate impressions of various big ticket events—the conventions, for instance, or the debates. At its best, Twitter is unparalleled as a mode of collecting and dispersing information concisely and efficiently. On the other hand, some journalists developed a decidedly looser Twitter finger: Rachel Sklar, until recently of The Huffington Post, has used Twitter, like many others, for just about everything, from political commentary to airport observations to the random note that Eric Holder has a sexy mustache (“I wonder if Axelrod is jealous”). While the randomness is theoretically refreshing, the frequent and disparate nature of the Tweets can also make the relay of knowledge, when it comes, feel congested. The novelty was in the form, but often, there was little added value beyond that.

Nancy Scola says that “[Twitter’s] not overly useful at a national level” because a countrywide network of Tweeters tends to be too diffused to be effective. But she thinks it has more promise with “local papers, local press”—in Missouri, for example, where TechPresident, in conjunction with a local TV station, used Twitter on election day “to track what was happening in local precincts.”

NPR also joined the effort (called Twitter Vote Report), with its Andy Carvin saying on Weekend Edition: “We only have so many reporters who are able to tackle voting irregularities, and they’re going to be working like mad…[Twitter Vote Report is] a way of spreading the workload out.” These efforts were still somewhat constrained by the tool itself: as a crowd-perpetuated technology, Twitter’s success, even on a local level, requires that a larger percentage of the general American public know what Twitter is and how to access it. While that’s completely achievable, it’s also clear that it will take more time for that to happen.

You still need a good reporter

CNN’s Magic Wall, the tactile multi-screen electoral map that reporter John King employed on election night, worked because King knew how to use it. Watching him zoom in to view results from Lake County, Ohio, without a break in his analysis, it was clear that he had practiced, and was comfortable with using the touch-screen technology; there were no extra movements, fumbles, or showy uses of the map.

Check out Saturday Night Live’s popular spoof of a reporter using CNN’s Magic Wall merely to show off what it could do. (The state of Oregon ended up in the ocean.) Jeff Han, the creator of the Magic Wall, noted in a recent interview with CNET that he wants all new clients to see the SNL skit, which he said relays the message that technology is just a tool, and that what matters is how it is used. “In the wrong hands, it doesn’t work,” he told CNET.

The implication, of course, was that technology is only as good as the reporter using it. The NYT article about King’s use of the Magic Wall detailed how his days as an AP reporter helped him to understand the information presented by the Magic Wall. “You can use this new technology to look at politics the old-fashioned way, which is: who’s finding their people and turning them out?” King told the NYT. MIT’s Raskar describes the press’s hi-tech opportunities as “new containers.” “Technology is providing a new container,” he says. “What the content should be inside that container is really up to the journalist.” In other words, it was always—and should remain—about John King telling the story; the map was the glorified help.

Do what you’re good at

The NYT’s Word Train feature, which asked people to submit a single word that described how they felt before and on election day, seemed like a silly use of space, especially considering that people (including the clever folks at The Economist) started entering random words—like “sassy”—to make the results more funny.

Similarly, the NYT’s more recent pick-an-Obama-cabinet feature asked readers to vote for their preferred candidates for Obama’s cabinet. (Bill Richardson is currently the top pick for Secretary of State.) While they may be entertaining, these features are essentially mindless, and don’t add much value. If what the NYT offers its readers most exclusively, in print and online, are the fruits of access and the staff and experience to regularly feature deep analysis—exactly the things that smaller or less established news organizations can’t always provide—its Web space should reflect those strengths and implement interactivity in ways that most enhance them.

That said, experimentation shouldn’t be anathema. Looking at any assessment of how well things worked, or didn’t, it sometimes seems like the message is that “trying out” some new-fangled idea is bound to end in a display of inefficiency, no match for traditional deep reporting. But that’s not quite fair. Using untested technology is bound to lead to some flaws or flubs. MIT’s Raskar asks for news consumers’ patience: “Things that are being ridiculed right now mostly because of its novelty will become commonplace in just a few years.” And Scola says that because Twitter is “still in its infancy,” it’s simply too early to tell how it will be used most effectively. (She mentions a botched attempt to incorporate Second Life—the free virtual 3D world where users can interact—into politics as an example of failed experimentation. “There were signs at the time that Second Life wasn’t going to have legs in politics long term,” she says with a laugh. “But with any of these things, they’re free or inexpensive, so you make the calculation that it’s worth the time and energy to use them.”)

Ideally, technology should serve one of two purposes: it should help the reporter do his or her job, or it should help the news consumer digest the news. At its best, it can stimulate all kinds of news consumers, from those who want simple visual explanations for complicated events, to those who want to go deep into the numbers that drive the news. There are all manner of technological “containers” that the press can utilize to do these things; the key thing is not to fetishize these new vehicles for their novelty, but instead to use them to enhance the content that’s inside.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.