Instantly analyzing and fact-checking debates: The first U.S. presidential debate of this campaign was held on Wednesday, the first general-election presidential debate to be defined by our current Twitter and “fact-checking” eras. The New York Times reported on the efforts by PBS’ Jim Lehrer and upcoming debate moderators to tune out the social media criticism, but it was pretty tough to ignore Wednesday night, when Twitter users eviscerated Lehrer’s passive performance as moderator (as Storified by Poynter).
The event was the most heavily tweeted U.S. political event ever, which didn’t impress TechCrunch’s Ryan Lawler. The New York Times’ Brian Stelter noted that judgment was instant and constant on Twitter, pre-empting the pundits’ traditional scorekeeping role, and Mathew Ingram of GigaOM looked at whether this is a good thing. At the Columbia Journalism Review, Walter Shapiro urged journalists to stay off of Twitter during the debates to focus more on what we learned than one-liners, and Politico’s Patrick Gavin declared that the mile-a-minute Twitter commentary hit “a new low in the area of banal coverage.” O’Reilly Radar’s Alex Howard was more optimistic about Twitter’s role, but said we won’t really arrive at a networked political environment until the public can actually close the feedback loop and participate in the debates themselves.
Others located the problem with debates in something deeper than social media — the broken system of mediated politics and political journalism. CJR’s Brendan Nyhan decried the pack-journalism analysis strategy and called for debate coverage that’s blind to any political analysis or spin. BuzzFeed’s John Herrman detailed the awful setup for journalists covering the debate from Denver and wondered why they “traveled to an event that’s basically made for the internet.”
Reuters’ Jack Shafer argued that the debates are pointless practically, but still a crucial part of our collective sociopolitical ritual in presidential campaigns. Former FCC chair Newton Minow noted in The New York Times that there has been some evolution in debate quality, though it’s been small. Former NBC executive Bill Wheatley also went into debate history here at the Lab, and suggested that moderators should be more aggressive about challenging candidates on their non-answers or factual fudging.
As Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon and New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan pointed out, fact-checking took on a particular importance in this debate. A lot of that, said the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple, is because it’s a huge traffic draw. Wemple suggested the popularity of fact-checking might be a function of consumer frustration with the conventions of political reporting. “Fact-checking represents a retreat from the mush and blandness of the political reportorial tradition,” he said. “It marshals facts and judgments and instant gratification.” And Time’s Michael Scherer explored why the public is so preoccupied with (and divided on) factual accuracy this election, and why candidates are struggling with it so much more.
Mobile news use is up, but what about revenue?: The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism released a major study this week on mobile and tablet news use, finding that half of Americans now have a smartphone or tablet, and most of those mobile device owners use them to get news. Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman had a good summary of what the study said about the way people are getting that news through their phones and tablets — many of them are consuming more news than they had before, from more sources, including more longform news. They’re still consuming news mostly at home, especially with tablets.
The study also had some bad news for news organizations trying to draw revenue from mobile users: As Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici explained, most mobile users are getting their news via their browsers, rather than apps. And that means they’re not paying for news as much — 6 percent of tablet owners said they’d paid for news on it in the past year, less than half the percentage of last year, as Poynter’s Rick Edmonds pointed out.
Edmonds also noted that users find ads less appealing on their phones and tablets than on desktops or laptops. (Ad Age also reported on a separate study that showed some serious problems with mobile ad rates.) Despite the revenue difficulties, though, Edmonds found some promise in the continued growth of mobile media and suggested that bundled subscriptions might be the best strategy for now. The Knight Digital Media Center’s Amy Gahran translated some of the findings into tips for community news organizations, noting that the preference for websites over apps should be good news for small news orgs with tight budgets.
The Lab’s Adrienne LaFrance focused on when and where we consume news on mobile devices, wondering where print fits into the habitual media consumption mix. She highlighted Pew’s question about that dynamic regarding magazines: “If the physical print publication is not stacking up on the nightstand or coffee table — but rather is filling up out of sight inside the digital device, will people ever read back copies? And if not, does that reduce the value of a publication for them?”
The ethics of live coverage: Fox News raised one of those classic journalism-school ethics questions last Friday when it aired a man’s suicide as it followed his car chase live, despite a five-second delay. The anchor, Shepard Smith, immediately apologized on air, and the network released another apology later. The man’s family criticized Fox for airing his death, and Fox instituted a five-second delay drill in response to the incident.
This is far from the first time TV broadcasters have aired a live suicide, and Julie Moos’ Storify at Poynter captured the Twitter discussion of historical context, as well as several of the ethical angles. In this case, we also had the issue of online news outlets reposting the video, as BuzzFeed, Gawker, and Mediaite all posted Fox’s full clip. On Twitter, the Columbia Journalism Review wondered who was worse: “@FoxNews for airing the suicide, or @Buzzfeed for re-posting the video just in case you missed it the first time?” Politico’s Dylan Byers rounded up each site’s rationale for running the clip — or, in The Raw Story’s case, for not running it.
Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan went a bit more philosophical than the rest, noting that the problem with airing car chases live in the first place is that “a car chase contains a high potential for mayhem, without any inherent news value otherwise.” But while arguing that car chases shouldn’t be shown live, Nolan also defended Gawker’s own decision to publish the video, and the Columbia Journalism Review’s Caitlin Dewey took issue with his argument, lamenting that “morbid curiosity is now enough to elevate a story from the gutter to the level of ‘news.’” Poynter’s Al Tompkins also reviewed the ethical issues involved for journalists, providing a series of helpful questions for them to ask themselves when deciding whether to cover something live.
Reading roundup: A few other interesting stories that popped up during a relatively quiet week:
— Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, who ran The New York Times from 1963 into the 1990s, died last weekend at age 86. The Times has an appropriately magisterial obituary, and NPR had a good portrait as well. The Guardian’s Michael Wolff wrote an appreciation of Sulzberger’s restraint, and Jay Rosen expanded on a Sulzberger quote with some thoughts on journalistic judgment.
— Bloomberg Businessweek reported on some big changes at Al Jazeera: It’s cutting or relocating some 200 staff members in its English-language operation and doubling down on sports. The network is also facing some questions about its political independence after some meddling in news coverage on behalf of its owner, the Qatari emir.
— The Neo-Journalism Conference on the future of the profession was held this week in Brussels, and fortunately for the rest of us, it was expertly liveblogged by j-prof Alfred Hermida. You can read about the journalist as DJ, citizen journalists’ motivations, public participation in news, liveblogging and journalism, and Twitter as an ambient news network.
— Finally, two very different pictures of the state of online content and journalism: SF Weekly’s feature on the content-farm-ish qualities of the sports site Bleacher Report (now owned by Turner Broadcasting), and a Poynter piece on ventures by the viral-content site BuzzFeed into longform journalism.