Nov. 6: A journalism case study

On Election Day, I sat as a spectator in the arena of journalism, eager to watch unprecedented news coverage unfold. “The first social election,” some called it.

I knew I wouldn’t catch everything, and I certainly didn’t, but my goal on Nov. 6 was to document the election from journalists’ perspectives. My observations are just that — trends I saw among hours of online coverage, which I consumed from one tiny computer monitor with one set of eyes. Given my resources, there’s nothing scientific in my analysis. Nonetheless, I think it has value.

My method: Monitor journalists’ and news outlets’ Twitter feeds, Facebook posts and Instagram activity; check related RSS feeds; repeatedly expand the sample size by exploring others’ Twitter lists, seeking impressionable accounts through Topsy and Hashtracking and browsing news sites to identify election reporters; finally, Storify as much as possible.

After less than an hour of this, I formed four sections within SPJ’s Storify “Journalists on Election Day”: “resources and tips,” “status updates,” “election coverage” and “just for fun.” Nearly everything I collected fit one of these categories, though some could have gone in more than one. It’s amazing what people can fit into a post of 140 or fewer characters.

Twitter was my most plentiful resource. I collected information from more than 180 accounts and learned a lot from the posts I read.

On perhaps the greatest day for civic duty in the U.S., journalists provided a variety of public services. They posted photos of polling places, sent updates of wait times in voting lines, posted links to voting resources and giving citizens multiple ways to access election results. I saw a great effort from journalists to communicate with their audiences.

In terms of election coverage, journalism impressively embraced interactive graphics and (gasp) math. In the four newsrooms I’ve worked, in the scores of conversations I’ve had with reporters, I’ve heard few kind words for math. (And I majored in English writing, so I’m guilty of cringing at math, too.)

“I do words, not numbers.”

“Well, I’m bad at math, so I chose writing.”

You’ve heard it, I’ve heard it (I’ve said it), but that doesn’t mean journalists don’t understand the importance of math — there are plenty of journalists who like math, even love it. But after Election Day, its significance has never seemed clearer. I won’t rehash the commentary from dozens of articles on Nate Silver, but if the emergence of data journalism hasn’t motivated reporters and editors to prioritize data literacy, Election 2012 should.

Ethical debates have gained momentum as a result of the election and use of social media. Instagram use among journalists has great advantages in serving consumers, and it also encourages impressive citizen journalism. The New York Times boasted an impressive collection of readers’ Instagrams on Election Day, too. But the use of Instagram’s editing features and its impact on photojournalism remains a debated ethical issue.

Even ethical topics with deep history, like whether journalists should vote, sparked fervent interactions on social media. It’s more than just voting, though, as journalists frequently take to the Internet with their political commentary and opinions.

Speaking of commentary: The “just for fun” and “status updates” segments of the Storify are, at least from my perspective, highly entertaining. Among the more serious messages like those urging others to vote and describing polling-place atmosphere, you can find many a funny message about caffeine, pizza and the inevitable system failures before a deadline.

As election returns poured in, I scaled back my rate of aggregation, first because this expected coverage didn’t add much value to the Storify and second because I could hardly keep up. What I noticed was an increase in care and accurate reporting from other breaking news that has emerged on Twitter (Hurricane Sandy, the SCOTUS decision on the Affordable Care Act). Perhaps this is indicative of a maturing digital media.

Despite the limits of my journo-tracking, this sample displayed many trends in breaking-news coverage, and I hope news organizations reflect on Election 2012 as they consider how to best deliver journalism amid industry and technology advances. Major news events double as learning opportunities, and journalists need to capitalize on them, specifically this one.

 

Journalists: What did you learn on Election Day? How will this year’s election coverage impact your approach to planning, reporting and editing? If you wish to weigh in, please engage with this discussion on our Facebook page, or send me an email. I may quote you in a future blog post.

Christine DiGangi is the communications coordinator at SPJ headquarters. She graduated from DePauw University and has worked in journalism and communications. Connect with Christine through email, cdigangi@spj.org, or Twitter, @cdigang.

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