The Pros and Cons of Covering the Election on Twitter

Social media’s imprint on presidential election coverage continues to expand. As Jim Roberts, assistant managing editor at The New York Times, observed, “Social has profoundly impacted how journalists cover the election, how campaigns spin the news cycle and how the public consumes news. Social platforms have also amplified story lines and have become a conduit for news scoops.”

Ben Smith, editor-in-chief at BuzzFeed, added that with social media “Campaigns are competing with news organizations for readers’ attention.” And Amanda Zamora, national digital editor at The Washington Post, noted, “experimenting with new social platforms allows us to reach new audiences.”

Political reporters and editors from print, online, and television discussed benefits and drawbacks of using social media in 2012 presidential election coverage.  Roberts moderated the panel held during Social Media Week on Wednesday in New York. Twitter, described by Peter Hamby, political reporter at CNN, as “an invaluable resource,” was the main focus. Below are key takeaways.

Twitter is a bubble in which the political press tends to follow each other. Dick Stevenson, political editor at The New York Times, said “it has become a clubhouse effect on Twitter, a closed feedback loop that we need to be more on guard against.” Zamora added, “We should engage beyond the bubble and we still have a long way to go to use Twitter as an engagement platform.” Smith didn’t perceive the Twitter bubble as an issue, since “insiders are credentialed for a reason.” For him Twitter is “a better place to find questions than answers.”

Paying attention to live political events and real-time conversations on Twitter is challenging. During the debates, reporters are torn between watching them live or following the coverage on Twitter. Hamby explained, “When I check Twitter more than the actual debate that can be a distraction, so during the last couple debates I turned off my Twitter feed.” For Smith “debates themselves provide an immediate watching experience since many people are not on Twitter.”

Facebook is a major source for sharing stories, but managing comments is difficult. More reporters now have a Facebook presence, and some have more followers than their news outlets. While Facebook users share a lot of stories, Smith pointed out that “stuff people want to share on Facebook is not long political articles.” Both Zamora and Amanda Michel, open editor for The Guardian U.S., acknowledged the challenge of handling the comments. While turning off the comments is an option, Michel said that instead The Guardian invested in moderating their Facebook community.

Social media brings an outside perspective to the editorial process: Michel observed, “Social adds a fascinating dimension because it leads to a greater conversation about what’s happening.” Four years ago when she worked at The Huffington Post they promoted citizen journalism for their “Off The Bus” project to crowdsource the 2008 election. At that time she said “journalists took a defensive posture.” Now she claimed there’s more recognition of the added value.