Election Coverage on Campus

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College journalists can and should cover the presidential race: Here’s how

By Sarah Maben and Dan Malone

Barack, Mitt, Paul and Joe. Their names are all over professional newsfeeds regarding the U.S. presidential election.

Illustration: League of Women Voters

If their names aren’t part of college media newsfeeds, they could be. The student press corps has an arsenal of tools to cover the 2012 presidential campaign and election night with relative ease and very little money.

“To prepare journalism students for the media world they are entering, I think it’s essential to have them cover election night in real-time,” said Jake Batsell, adviser to smudailycampus.com at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. “Election night provides journalism students with a perfect laboratory to perform under real-time pressure during a major news story.”

Photo by Peter Clark. Used with permission.

Today’s readers expect results as quickly as possible, Batsell said. And through social media and other technology, student journalists can deliver just that. Students, for example, can cover local watch parties and tweet the news moment by moment. They can also stream videos from polling places as live feeds on UStream.

The SMU team used a variety of methods to cover previous elections in real-time. One tactic was to simulate a live blog by simply updating an election Web page with time-stamped entries throughout the night. Their page (http://www.smudailymustang.com/?cat=576) is a multimedia mix run as a chronology on the page.

SMU students have also used a more automated system like CoverItLive. At the time SMU used it, CoverItLive was a free service. Now, packages are sold to handle the expected traffic. ScribbleLive is a similar service student journalists might consider using.

While all of the coverage options are inspiring, college journalists, like their professional counterparts, need to plan election coverage in advance, including what hashtag they’ll use.

”Selecting a hashtag in advance is important so you can promote it before your election coverage,” Batsell said. SMU used #smuelex.

Live-blogging an event requires more than just a reporter and an iPad, even if the reporter is a digital native. Students should be encouraged to practice on smaller campus events before election night. This will help work out the bugs, and advisers can offer constructive criticism on the previous live-blogs.

Student journalists can study such previous election live-blogs as http://trailblazersblog.dallasnews.com/2012/07/live-blog-election-night-coverage-of-texas-senate-runoffs.html or http://www.texastribune.org/texas-politics/2012-elections/liveblog-runoff-election-results for ideas.

Tools and story ideas from now until Nov. 6:

  1. Candidate tracking:  Use an interactive mapping system like Google Fusion to track the candidates’ locations. Have reporters follow and interview candidates from a major campaign as they whistle-stop through your area.
  2. Tweet of the day: For a quick ongoing feature, select the tweet of the day for each candidate.  (You can use topsy.com to collect tweets and other social media mentions. Monniter is another useful site.)
  3. Follow the $$$: Report on the money behind the campaigns by reviewing financial disclosure statements candidates are required to file. Share copies of the statements with your readers through DocumentCloud. Who’s raising the most? How are they spending it? See what patterns emerge in the numbers and create a graphic to share with your readers.
  4. Voter’s guide: Assign students to individual candidates for short pre-election profiles and answers to questions, and then publish an online voter’s guide. For easy collection of the information, consider a Google Doc form that can be emailed to candidates to fill in online. In the end, you would have all the data in one spreadsheet you could export.
  5. Vet the resumes: Assign the same students to vet each candidate’s resume. Annotate a document with notes about how each piece checked out (or didn’t) and upload to your web site. Student journalists could also check the background of candidates with public data aggregators and or city, county, state records. A how-to feature might interest readers who would like to vet candidates themselves.
  6. Registration drives: Report on voter registration drives, such as Rock the Vote, and investigate what’s being done to make sure people registering voters are actually turning in voter registration applications. Create an online counter that reflects the number of voters registered and update weekly. Follow your county’s election official(s) in Twitter and Facebook.
  7. The big interview: Shoot for the moon – request interviews from Romney and Obama campaigns with candidates. You don’t know what’s possible until you ask. Offer unique ways to conduct the interview, like a Twitter chat, Google Hangout or live-blog. Both campaigns will want to appear tech-savvy and college-student friendly. Even five questions with key officials in the campaign would be a coup. Freelance writer Kathryn Jones suggests looking for “guest commentators” such as former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. You might look for your school’s alumni in government positions who might be likely to respond to your requests.
  8. First-time presidential voters: What issues are the candidates addressing of the most concern to college students, many of whom have never voted in a presidential election before. Jones points to national studies that show voter apathy among young voters such as college students. She suggests polling the students on your campus: do they plan to vote? If not, why and what are the implications for that lack of involvement in the political process. Facebook or Twitter are options for social media polling. Or, research and write an explanatory feature about what the candidates are doing to get out the young vote in your area.
Illustration courtesy League of Women Voters

Day, night coverage on Nov. 6: Excellent experience for college press

During the day on Nov. 6, student press corps can use social media and technology to:

  1. Interview exiting voters and live-blog: Students can download a live-blog app on their smartphones and tablets, go to polling places to interview exiting voters and election officials, and then live blog about turnout. Have a poll question to ask voters as they leave the booths that you can post on Twitter or a live-blog. Maybe it is “Do you plan to share how you voted in social media?” Or tie in to a question asked in this Pew research study: http://pewresearch.org/pubs/2343/social-media-influence-politics-liberals-democrats-politics-news-election
  2. Ask political science profs to join reporters in Google Hangouts for video session: Instead of a quick phone call to the local political experts or political science professors to analyze results, college media could ask these individuals to join them in Google Hangouts for a video session. Reporters have the option of making these sessions public and automatically feeding them to a YouTube channel.
  3. Stay in contact with local and state election officials:  Someone on a news staff should stay in contact with election officials throughout the day to stay abreast of allegations of voter fraud or irregularities.
  4. See what people are saying by geographic location: Programs like Adaptive Path’s iWitness shows tweets and flickr updates by time and location down to a street address. College journalists could also set up a Four Square check-in to track how many users check in. (Let’s hope no “mayor” emerges, or “vote early and often” might take on a new meaning. At least you would have a juicy story!)
  5. Keep an eye out for watch parties: Check for any virtual watch parties like tweet ups—or host a bi-partisan tweet-up watch party as a way to engage readers and have them help tell the narrative.  For physical watch parties, students should go to the headquarters of major campaigns in your area; they would cover reaction to the votes as they are counted and get reaction to outcome when the last votes are tallied. Another idea, courtesy of Jones, is to follow events like the one Microsoft is setting up — live Xbox town halls with hosts such as Chelsea Clinton.
  6. Do distributive reporting: Partner with another campus news outlet in your state’s capital or even Washington D.C. You can share video or provide analysis for each. Industrious students might even set up a collaborative network for the night or a universal hashtag to aggregate all of the college media news for Election Night.
  7. Present interactive maps: Use Google Fusion to identify polling places for voters. You could even update the maps to reflect the length of lines at the polling places. If voters know about this service beforehand, they could check them before venturing out to vote. Or simply give polling wait time updates via live-blog, Facebook and Twitter.
  8. Select tweets of the day: For a quick ongoing feature, select the tweet of the hour for each candidate.
  9. Profile polling volunteer, ask a question every hour: Identify a unique polling place volunteer you could interview intermittently throughout the day, answering one question every hour.
  10. Seek Instagram voting pictures:  Ask the news outlet’s social media followers to share Instagram voting pictures that you can use to build a photo story or scrolling photo album.
  11. Storify It: As a sidebar to your reporting, use Storify to curate your social media followers’ comments into a reader-generated narrative.

Dr. Sarah Maben and Dan Malone are assistant professors at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas. They help students run Texan News Service, a wire service for an eight-county region in Central Texas, a daily news broadcast, and a quarterly regional magazine.


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