Journalists Note Facebook’s Role In 2012 Election

By Jennifer Moire 

Some of the premier journalists of the 2012 election cycle joined CNN Political Director Mark Preston for a Facebook Politics Live panel discussing the role that Facebook and other social media channels play in their coverage.  The journos were part of a series of live-streamed interviews and discussions from the University of Denver’s DebateFest held before Wednesday night’s first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

The panel included Juana Summers, political reporter at Politico; Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed; and Ari Shapiro, White House correspondent for National Public Radio.

Here’s a look at some of the topics the group covered:

Crowdsourcing Story Ideas

The panel initially tackled the question of whether they ever get story ideas via social media.

Summers, who travels on Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s campaign bus, certainly does, although she added that the way she covers politics may differ from the way others do.

Smith also gets ideas from social media, adding:

Facebook is a great source of questions, often very sharp questions, that get directed back at folks like us.

And Shapiro noted that Facebook and Twitter are places to see what’s “percolating,” in places or battleground states that reporters may not have had a chance to see first-hand.

Preston asked the trio to comment on a recent Pew Research Center study, which found that convention coverage was more negative on social media when compared with mainstream news outlets, and on whether politicians have the power to change that narrative once it has been set.

Smith said social media is like “a soccer match. Some sides get louder at times than the other,” adding:

On Facebook you follow people you want to follow … People gravitate toward people like themselves. It’s harder to alienate people from the other side.

Accuracy In A Social Media Age

The group split on the question of whether social media has made reporting less accurate, and which group is affected by those errors — Facebook or Twitter users, or reporters.

Summers admitted that mistakes happen:

The tools they have make it easier to amplify information that sometimes isn’t right.

Or, social media can serve as a fact checker, as Smith added:

Incorrect information gets beaten down when it isn’t right. There is a tension between being first and being right. Being wrong is a huge problem for the person who got it wrong.

He gave as an example the famous New York Daily News headline that said Dick Gephardt had been named John Kerry’s vice presidential nominee.

According to Shapiro, The New York Times used to be the last word.  With social media, reporters can share what they are working on, and have a push-pull, or give-and-take, with users.

And Preston discussed the impact of Facebook on less-experienced reporters:

In the age of Facebook and Twitter, we have younger journalists introduced  into the game who haven’t been around long enough to be beaten down by an editor or go through an editor first. That’s dangerous. That’s a newsroom problem, not a social media problem.

Facebook For Personal And Professional Use

With uses for Facebook overlapping between private and public lives, the political scribes were asked to discuss how they strike a balance between the two.

Shapiro was excited to share with followers and friends where he was traveling on the campaign trail or which story he was working on, like when he promoted a piece for All Things Considered that aired this week discussing the similarity between Romney’s and Obama’s stump speeches.

When he talked about traveling to Colorado a couple of weeks ago, he ended up scoring an invitation to a local political dinner that was not only delicious, but served as a scene in his story.

Smith noted, “It’s hard to integrate social media life into my political life.”  On Facebook, he said that his actual friends are not really connected to his political friends, so it’s tricky to balance.

For Summers, her friends aren’t really involved in politics. The issue is more about balancing privacy concerns, like not necessarily wanting to tell her 90,000 Facebook subscribers when she walks across the street from her house to a bar.

Criticism On Social Media

Journalists are notorious for being thin-skinned, so the moderator asked how these very public reporters deal with criticism that comes their way on Facebook or Twitter.

Critiques don’t seem to bother Summers, who said:

I try to address (the criticism) as tactfully as I can.  One conservative blogger sent me a private message about my story. I appreciated that.

Shapiro added that comments on social media don’t bother him. What he’s looking for is “constructive dialogue. Calling people names detracts from that. ”

Summers also talked about what Facebook and Twitter mean for her and her employer:

(It) allows people to engage in different ways with my personal brand and my publication’s brand.  It’s another layer and venue for people to engage.

Quality Of Social News

And what about when really big news happens, like the day Ryan was named as Romney’s vice presidential pick? What is the role of the journalist when so many are taking to Twitter or Facebook to share the same details?

Preston said he felt that more information was better, but it’s also about the quality of information that’s being put out there.

Shapiro opted for Facebook about things that are “news adjacent,” meaning:

Everyone knows that Ryan is the VP choice. I can give you an interesting voter at a rally. Or the fact that the motorcade just got into an accident.

Finally, if reporters need to justify to their editors why they are spending so much time on social media, Preston said to look no further than the statistics.

In 2008, the last presidential election year, there were 100 million monthly Facebook users. The social network announced Thursday morning that it officially reached 1 billion monthly active users Sept. 14 at 12:45 p.m. PT.

Preston closed by plugging CNN’s partnership with Facebook via the online Election Talk Meter and on TV, which the political director noted is not quite perfected yet.

Other guests that joined Facebook’s livestream from the University of Denver included Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), Sen. Michael Bennett (D-Colo.), Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), and various faculty from the University of Denver.

Readers: Were you surprised by any of the comments from the political journalists about the impact of Facebook and Twitter on their campaign coverage?