A New Media View of the Presidential Debate

Oct 19th, 2008 | By ffolwell | Category: Latest News

October 16, 2008

By Jed Layton

Washington, D.C.—Katelyn Polantz had a lot on her mind as she watched the final presidential debate Wednesday night from her news desk.  She was doing double duty covering the debate as the editor-in-chief of her student newspaper and as a blogger for the New York Times.

Polantz, a senior in English literature and communication at the University of Pittsburg, viewed the debate with other editors of The Pitt News, hoping the contest would shed light on which candidate the newspaper would endorse the next day.  At the same time, Polantz was one of 20 student journalists blogging live for the Times about the debate.

“This is what I do every day; cover the news and election and report on it for our readers.  Doing this for the Times was just an extension of my job,” Polantz said.  “But it was more fun because it was on the national stage, it was more exciting.”

Polantz and the other students were part of a growing population of new media journalists covering the debates and elections.  While television is still the main medium for the debate an increasing number of online newspapers and mainstream news outlets are offering alternatives for their audiences.  As a result, the dynamics of how the debate is perceived by potential voters is also changing.

Julie Germany, director of the I nstitute for Politics Democracy & the Internet, said the Internet is affecting the debates in a way not seen since the first debates were broadcast on television years ago.  

Television, she said, placed importance on looks, appearance and short, powerful clips.  But now the Internet is placing importance on truth, accuracy and consistency.  Germany said people can now access transcripts of past debates, old speaking appearances and online commentaries during the debate.

“People can discuss what the candidates say in real time,” she said.  “With the Internet, the debate system becomes more of a battle of ideas and less a battle of sound bites.”

For the past four debates each news organization attempted to find a unique voice in covering the debate.  Well-known blogging websites, such as the Huffington Post and Politico, experimented.

Sam Stein, a blogger with Huffington, focused on quoting typically right-wing news agencies such as Fox News, when they said something positive about Obama throughout the debate.  Fellow Huffington blogger Nick Graham commented on a CNN chart measuring uncommitted Ohio voters responded to the words of the candidates.

At Politico, a large variety of bloggers such as Rep. Roy Blunt, (R-Mo) and Christine Pelosi, daughter of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi gave one line commentaries throughout the debate.  FactCheck.org analyzed statements made by the candidates in real time.

The Drudge Report, which typically avoids live blogging and relies on linking news stories, used a live poll during the debate.  Asking which candidate won, John McCain led the poll nearly 5,000 votes to 1,500 with 30 minutes left in the debate. 

Blogs and live streaming video were also found on the websites of newspapers and major news networks.  Fox News had a link to view three political experts and an anchor watch the debate.   The Times offered the student blog along with a live blog written by Katharine Seelye, a writer for the Times’ “The Caucus” blog.

As a student journalist, Polantz said she understood why news organizations have begun to place a large emphasis on new media such as blogging and live commentary on their websites. 

“Blogging is the easiest way to things quickly and in the time that it is happening,” she said.  “You don’t break news stories in print editions anymore; you have to break it online.”

Charles Flint, manager of a Washington, D.C., restaurant, watched the debate on a flat screen television at a bar. The morning after the debate he said he was still confused about the identity of “Joe the Plumber,”  who was introduced by McCain during the debate to counter Obama’s tax plan.

Flint had no idea who he was and left the debate annoyed with the two candidates.  When told he could have learned who “Joe the Plumber” was from online newspapers and websites offering real time information, Flint threw his hands into the air and shook his head.

“Man I wish I had known that,” he lamented.  “If I could have read about who this Joe guy was while they were talking about him, the debate would have made much more sense to me.  As it was, I had no idea who or what they were talking about.”

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