Why TV partners with social media to cover debates — and how it falls short
Remember the post-debate spin room? Once upon a time, viewers turned exclusively to news channels to watch network-appointed experts on the left and right serve up soundbites after the candidates quit their lecterns. For years, radio and television spin rooms were the primary vehicle for reporters to shape their initial analyses as they spoke to candidate aides and party officials.
But the rise of social media has made talking heads of all of us, empowering a new chattering class that makes traditional spin look downright sluggish. By the time the room gets up to speed, the pundits of the second screen have already identified the most interesting snippets from the broadcast, turned them into GIFs and painstakingly analyzed their import in 140-character takes. When the professional pundits open their mouths to analyze the debate, they're already lagging behind a torrent of hashtags, snaps and vines.
The last several months have provided ample evidence that broadcast outlets are getting wise to this trend. Cable news networks have partnered with a social media network for every debate since Fox News announced its GOP contest would feature questions and data from Facebook users. CNN's Oct. 13 Democratic debate also featured questions from Facebook, and CBS News announced this morning its Nov. 14 Democratic debate would include "live reactions and questions" from Twitter.
This is nothing new. Since 2008, broadcast outlets partnered with social networks in an attempt to bring viewers into the debate process. Early efforts from CNN saw the cable news network incorporating questions from YouTube and inviting readers to provide post-debate spin through Facebook. Many years before that, broadcasts featured focus groups comprising so-called "regular people" sounding off on the debates, an analog version of user-generated content.
But the recent spate of debates co-branded with social networks is an indicator that these companies are becoming increasingly central to electoral exchanges, said Andy Carvin, the editor in chief and founder of social news startup Reported.ly. The reason is simple: By giving social media companies a seat at the table, news organizations get a "marketing bonanza" from networks that promote the debates to their massive userbase. Social media companies get to associate their brands with the debates, further establishing themselves as emissaries of the public square.
Although Carvin applauds networks for acknowledging the "second screen debate" raging on Twitter and Facebook, he isn't convinced that news organizations are making the best use of their partnerships with social media outlets. Many times, he says, the questions seem perfunctory, as if news organizations are looking to check off a box to acknowledge viewer participation.
"On the one hand, it’s potentially a way for bringing in members of the public to ask questions that might not typically fit the questioning agenda of the news outlet that hosted the debate," Carvin said. "But having said that, It’s pretty rare to hear any questions that the moderators themselves haven’t come up with."
Tossing in a question or two from social media is a step in the right direction, but it doesn't capture the breadth of conversation unfurling on Twitter and Facebook, Carvin said. He suggested several options to improve the process, including standalone Twitter accounts dedicated to curating the conversation and allowing Facebook users to weigh in on whether their questions were better than the ones asked by professional journalists. As is, the efforts come across as empty lip service to readers.
"I think the public's getting the short end of the stick on this," Carvin said. "It gives us the illusion that there’s public participation."
Katie Hawkins-Gaar, Poynter's faculty member for digital innovation, agreed that the current social media integrations have left much room for improvement. Rather than featuring one-off questions selected by journalists, news organizations should consider empowering viewers to ask follow-up questions. And instead of leaving question selection entirely up to moderators, cable news networks could allow the public to vote on which questions should be asked.
"I think every news organization is skeptical about bringing the public into the reporting process or the interviewing process," Hawkins-Gaar said. "But I’ve found that you get thoughtful, creative and smart questions when you do."
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Katie Hawkins-Gaar's name.