November 5, 2010

Parsing Election Day Media – How the Midterms Message Varied by Platform

The media serve several functions when it comes to coverage of election results, whether it is the mainstream press engaged in reporting news or citizens using technology to share and participate in it. The most basic function is to report the vote. Another more complex task is to assign some meaning to those results, to fashion a narrative that resets the political landscape and leans forward toward the next election cycle.

A new study finds that no single unifying 2010 election-day message reverberated through the news ecosystem—even with results as decisive as those on Nov. 2.
Rather, the media conversation was more diffuse than it might have been in a simpler, more homogenized, media era and it varied substantially depending on what media one looked at.

These are among the findings of a new report by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism of election coverage on four distinct media platforms, produced in conjunction with social media analysis technology from Crimson Hexagon.

A basic narrative of historic Republican gains and the voters’ rebuke to Democrats certainly gained traction in the press. To some extent, however, that GOP romp theme was balanced by projections about future politics and policy debates, a focus on the electoral process itself, and grassroots calls to action.

To some degree, different sectors performed differing functions: Newspapers, particularly on their front pages, offered synthesis and unified verdicts (GOP triumph). Television leaned more toward speculation and differing narratives (coming from talking heads). Blogs offered more ideologically oriented commentary and scrutiny of the process, while Twitter functioned largely as a clarion call to citizen activism and participation.

The findings also offer significant evidence that social media aren’t necessarily derivative of and dependent on the mainstream media. In this case, bloggers and Twitterers clearly went their own way, focusing on elements of the election that were largely missing in the mainstream narrative.
Among the findings:

  • Probably nothing in media comes closer to a simpler and more singular narrative than the headlines on the front pages of newspapers. These offered the broadest, boldest snapshot of the voter’s verdict the day before.  And they overwhelmingly drove home one unadulterated message, that of a Republican triumph, even as Democrats held the Senate. “GOP Tidal Wave,” declared the St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press. “GOP Gallops” echoed the Austin American-Statesman.
  • On network and cable television, a key factor in that Republican showing—the role of the tea parties—was a major topic, receiving 364 mentions across the six networks during the course of their election night programming. That ranked behind only attention to Barack Obama (473 mentions). That coverage also quickly pivoted from reporting the results to speculating on everything from the future of the Obama health care law to the political fortunes of such key Republican players such as Sarah Palin and John Boehner.
  • Bloggers offered a more mixed election verdict than much of the rest of the media. While the themes of GOP and tea party victories accounted for about 42% of the conversation, the competing idea of a mixed result or a setback for the tea party accounted for about one-quarter of the discussion. And the second-biggest election theme among bloggers (at 18%) was allegations of, and concerns about, possible voter fraud.
  • Twitter users demonstrated their platform’s function as an organizing and galvanizing tool. About two-thirds (64%) of the Twitter conversation monitored by PEJ focused on calls to action, on encouraging people to vote. And most of that (41%) came in the form of non-partisan appeals. One other theme to emerge on Twitter was that people were tired of what they perceived as a nasty and negative campaign season (9%).

To do the study PEJ used three different methods to analyze four different media: newspapers, television, blogs, and Twitter.  For newspapers, researchers looked at front page headlines from November 3rd, 2010 archived on “Today’s Front Pages” section of the Newseum website.  For television, researchers conducted keyword frequency search using a software called Snapstream that recorded the three major cable news networks between 6 p.m. November 2 and 2 a.m. on November 3 and the three major commercial broadcast networks between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m. Finally, for blogs and Twitter PEJ used another technology provided by the social analytics firm Crimson Hexagon. The technology analyzes online media by identifying statistical patterns in the words used to express opinions on different topics.  For this analysis PEJ looked at blog posts and Twitter on November 2nd and November 3rd.  For a full methodology of the study click here.