At Zeidman Colloquium, Journalists Chime In On the Changing Coverage of Campaigns

The 2012 presidential election was the year for Twitter and data mining, which both changed the way candidates ran campaigns and how the campaigns were covered in the media.

Speakers at the annual John Fisher Zeidman Memorial Colloquium on Politics and the Press Saturday said Twitter in particular increased voter's access to campaigns and expanded the range of opinions about the candidates.

At a time when many in the media bemoan how Americans are narrowing their news sources, John Dickerson, chief political correspondent for Slate magazine described how Twitter users were able to follow a variety of sources.

"If your Twitter feed challenges you, it brings in all the interesting world view points," Dickerson said. "It's like reporting in little tiny snapshots," said Dickerson, who is also political director of CBS News.

Other speakers at the colloquium, which was held in the Sanford School of Public Policy, were: Nia-Malika Henderson, T'96, a national political reporter for The Washington Post, and Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed. James T. Hamilton, Charles S. Sydnor Professor of Public Policy and director of DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, moderated the session.

Smith said the increased use of Twitter as a news source was one of the key differences between the recent election and the election of 2008. As Twitter grew in influence, Smith said, the use of blogs, which occupied a key space in online discussion during the 2008 campaign, diminished.

Twitter's ability to influence public opinion was made clear following the first presidential debate, Dickerson said. After the first couple tweets described Obama's performance as "disastrous," a snowball effect resulted, Dickerson said. Dickerson also cited the absence of sufficient context around the 140-character tweets as one of the limitations of using Twitter as a source of news about the election.

Twitter use also changed the role of reporters, Dickerson said. Instead of reporting on events that people were already reading about through social media, most reporters focused on providing the necessary context during these "big moments," he said.

Smith and Dickerson noted how complex data analysis and "data mining" is changing both campaigning and election coverage. When many news organizations were calling the election "too close to call," Nate Silver, writing in the New York Times' FiveThirtyEight blog, and others showed a much easier path to victory for Obama using sophisticated statistical analysis that is new to campaign coverage.

Henderson said too many reporters were dismissive of the analysis. "The reporting suggested that the election was more volatile than it really was. We were hyperventilating at every nook and cranny," Henderson said. "In some ways, we missed the large advantage the Democrats had."

Silver's success, Dickerson said, opened many reporters' eyes to the value of intelligent data analysis and will likely inform better coverage of forthcoming elections.

Data analysis also drove old school campaigning tactics in ways that Henderson said news reporters under emphasized. Most significantly, she said, the Obama campaign's personal contact with voters through emails and door-to-door canvassing at the neighborhood level was a crucial element in the Obama victory.

Smith described how the data on the strengths of each candidate in different counties encouraged the Obama camp to conduct neighborhood campaigns in key areas.

"The rise of data refocused us on the human part of this enterprise, as well," Smith said.

Sponsored by the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, the colloquium was established by Philip and Nancy Zeidman in memory of their son, John Fisher Zeidman, a Duke student who died in 1982 after contracting viral encephalitis while studying in China. The Zeidman Colloquium celebrates John Zeidman's passion for examining the interaction of politics and the press.