Political innovations discussed at DuPont/Tow panel

Big innovations bring new perspectives to election coverage. That was the overriding message from journalists speaking to Columbia Journalism School students last week, at an event organized by the DuPont Awards Center and moderated by Tow Center director Emily Bell.

As Political Editor of PBS’ NewsHour, Christina Bellantoni oversaw the show’s online innovations. There was the “hat cam”, which sat on top of reporters’ heads, as they roamed the party convention floor and streamed all they heard and saw live from the delegate’s perspective. Her team also came up with Listen to Me, an online showcase of how voters across the US feel about the political process. Other online innovations included the Political Party Quiz and digital maps of election data.

As Bellantoni talked about her favourite NewsHour innovations, she explained that technology was an “equalizer”. In that it gave people who weren’t journalists the chance to share their views and report on what was happening close to them. As a result, NewsHour could show coverage from vastly different points of view.

The Wall Street Journal’s Andrew Garcia Phillips, showed students how he used data visualization techniques to find new angles in the campaign funding story. His creation Political Moneyball, is a visual map that shows the “donor universe” all at one. It charts who funds political campaigns and where their money goes into something that looks like a solar system. Garcia explained that by plotting data in this way, it became a more effective source. This is because journalists could more easily spot any unusual patterns and dig deeper to find out how they came about.

Paul Brandus, founder and editor of West Wing Report, took Bellantoni’s earlier theme of technology as “equalizer” to a different direction. For Brandus, innovation has enabled new news brands – like his own – to emerge. Which THIS has brought more voices to political reporting. He explained how technology had made it possible for him to do and disseminate his reporting without having the means of an established media company. It also let him carve out a market niche and today, under West Wing Reports, he is the third most followed White House reporter on Twitter.

But while innovation has brought new perspectives to political reporting, it can also spread incorrect perspectives and inaccuracies. Brandus pointed to the day that NPR wrongly announced that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot dead and the wave of reporters who took their cue and reported the same.

Taking the discussion forward, Jim Roberts from the New York Times showed how big news events, bring about big technological innovations. Events like the the 2008 US Presidential election, 2009 Iran election protests and the 2012 Olympics drove journalists to approach news in bigger and more creative ways. Roberts acknowledged that it would be hard to top the NYT’s coverage of the 2008 election, which got a record number of page views on election day.

This time round, the NYT has made a big leap into video, and live coverage in particular. It broadcast 20 hours of programs from the party conventions. Roberts acknowledged that the NYT is a long way from building an audience. And while it can’t compete with broadcasters, it can develop stylistic differences that’ll set it apart.

Political reporting has come a long way thanks to technology. It’s brought new voices to the mix and turned data into a more accessible source. But as Paul Brandus says, it’s important not to lose sight of what really matters. Without editorial standards, technology and innovation in journalism are redundant.


Photo credit: Wall Street Journal’s Political Moneyball