The Great Debates: With Social Media’s Rise, Networks Ready Their Reflexes

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Updated

After President Obama and Mitt Romney face off on Wednesday, the
atmosphere surrounding their first presidential debate will be one of
quickly gathered polling, closely monitored focus groups and plentiful
punditry, all centered on the issue of who won and who lost.

Media outlets will be going to great lengths to answer that question,
even before the debate concludes. The unmistakable difference this time
around is the influence of social media, which has helped shape
perceptions this election cycle.

The coverage will be markedly different even from that of 2008,
when Twitter had yet to take hold, second-screen multitasking was still a
novelty and the big news innovations seemed to be about the
user-generated experience on YouTube.

That was evident in the flurry of Twitter activity that
surrounded Clint Eastwood’s speech before the Republican National
Convention, when users quickly created hashtags and one launched the
handle @InvisibleObama.

“The new wrinkle here will be the shift toward real-time
reactions — in other words, to a greater extent than ever debate
evaluations will be taking place during the event as opposed to after,”
said Alan S. Schroeder, professor in the School of Journalism at
Northeastern U. in Boston and author of “Presidential Debates: 50 Years
of High Risk TV.” “I suspect that this grassroots response will
influence the professional pundits more than professional pundits will
influence voters, though of course both are likely to influence each
other.”

With coverage anchored by Bret Baier and Megyn Kelly, Fox News
will incorporate exclusive Twitter data, including its Political Index,
into its coverage, as a gauge of social media sentiment of the
candidates, and it will draw on Twitter to create a list of the top five
most-discussed topics throughout the evening.

Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper and John King will lead CNN’s
coverage from Washington, along with Candy Crowley and Erin Burnett from
Denver, where Burnett will have a focus group of undecided voters who
will offer their reactions. After the debate, many of its pundits will
grade the event, and there will be survey results from Facebook users
and a “reality check” team devoted to fact checking. The network is also
using the event to fully unveil a new studio specially designed for the
debates and election night.

Sometime during the 11 p.m. hour, CNN expects to have the results of a poll it conducted with ORC Intl.

“None of these things provide an absolute verdict of who won and
who lost, but each of them are pieces of the puzzle,” said Sam Feist,
CNN’s Washington bureau chief and senior VP.

MSNBC’s coverage will be led by Rachel Maddow along with Chris
Matthews, Al Sharpton, Ed Schultz, Lawrence O’Donnell, Chris Hayes and
Steve Schmidt. NBC News, with Brian Williams as anchor, is using
technology from Mass Relevance to integrate social media into analysis,
in addition to a truth squad editorial team to check the facts.

CBS News’ coverage, anchored by Scott Pelley, will include a poll
of 500 uncommitted voters done in conjunction with GfK’s
KnowledgePanel.

ABC News coverage is anchored by Diane Sawyer and George
Stephanopoulos; on its digital platform it continues its partnership
with Yahoo News. The latter is doing live polling throughout the debate
to gauge users opinions about the issues and the election in partnership
with Attensity. Yahoo is launching an Elections Dashboard on its social
TV app, IntoNow; a “who will win” feature will allows user to vote on
who will take the election and by what margin.

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