Digital media offer greater conversation about debates, but not quite a revolution yet

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Facts were checked. The moderator was panned. Twitter went bananas. But it took The Washington Post's Philip Rucker to answer the question that was eating at viewers of Wednesday night's television debate (the ones with good vision, that is): What’s the spot on Romney’s lapel pin? (Answer: Secret Service logo.)

And as for live-GIFfing the debates, let's just say the discipline seems to yet have some promise to fulfill.

Alex Kantrowitz, too, was disappointed in live GIFs: "Consuming a stream of animated images doesn’t seem like a major value add," he writes in a piece on digital takeaways from the debate. BuzzFeed's Ben Smith, Kantrowitz notes, scored with a well-shared insta-analysis of the debate that called Romney its winner 42 minutes after it began. Parody Twitter accounts like @SilentJimLehrer were "a good way to launch oneself into the national discussion," he writes. (Twitter, too, was panned and praised.) And there were lots of ways to watch the debates on what are increasingly quaintly referred to as "second screens," like the mobile devices on which candidates were trying to reach voters Wednesday night.

But all these forays into public participation, silly or forward-looking though they be, don't change the fact that 2012 politics are still essentially a one-way conversation, writes Alex Howard. Politicians may have social media teams, but for many that's just another broadcasting tool. (Or less naked political advertising.)

While everyone who has access to the Internet will be able to use multiple screens to watch, read and participate in the conversation around the debates, the public isn’t going to be directly involved in the debate. That’s a missed opportunity that won’t be revisited until the 2016 campaign.

Maybe, though, that better reflects a problem with the audience than one with the people at the podia. Alix Spiegel reports on the subtle ways candidates evade questions during debates. Behavioral psychologist Todd Rogers studied how people respond to "pivots" -- i.e., politicians turning from a question they don't want to answer to one they're ready for -- and found the smaller the shift in subject matter, the less likely viewers would penalize the speaker. "[M]ost of the time when we're watching debates, we spend that attention on social evaluation — Do we like this person? Do we trust this person? — and only generally monitor content," Spiegel reports.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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