News organizations embrace social data in 2012 election coverage

News organizations are crunching social media data in creative new ways as they fire up new websites and apps for 2012 election coverage.

The latest to debut is The Washington Post's @MentionMachine, a web app launched Tuesday that monitors Twitter and news media for political candidate mentions, "revealing trends and spikes that show where the conversation is and why."

Individual profiles in the @MentionMachine show the recent trend in candidate mentions.

The @MentionMachine is also integrated in a toolbar at the bottom of any campaign story. For future updates the Post says it is considering "many ideas — ranging from integrating sentiment analysis, sourcing from more social media streams, creating public widgets to pulling paid search data."

That first idea, sentiment analysis, is going to be important. It's the difference between data (how many mentions for each candidate) and intelligence (what those mentions say about the candidates). Without that, it hovers as less than an analytical tool but more than a gimmick.

Speaking of gimmicks, ABC News recently released a stock-market style ticker that tracks the day-to-day popularity of candidates based on an opaque blend of punditry and social media sentiment. It's a clever idea, but the lack of transparency about what drives it makes it of little serious use.

An example of what NBC News' candidate-tracking Foursquare map will look like.

NBC News is about to release a more straightforward social tool, a map of where the candidates' campaign teams check in on Foursquare. That tool, expected to launch this month on the new website, should illuminate in which states and cities the candidates concentrate their time.

Google is also getting into this action as well, in its familiar role as an aggregator of news and content. The search giant just launched, a powerful portal into what's being written and recorded about any major candidate or issue.

In addition to news headlines, the Google site has a "trends" section that compares graphs of the volume of searches, news mentions and YouTube video views for each candidate over time. And it has a map plotting all the reports and videos in Iowa.

All of this marks a notable shift for media and politics. In the last presidential election, 2008, social media was seen largely as a campaign tool -- a way to organize, message and motivate voters. That's still true, but in 2012 we'll also see a lot in the media about what the voters themselves say and do on social networks.

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    Jeff Sonderman

    Jeff Sonderman is the deputy director of the American Press Institute, helping to lead its use of research, tools, events, and strategic insights to advance and sustain journalism.


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