CNN’s decision to incorporate viewers’ YouTube video questions into two presidential debates in 2007 ignited a social media trend during the 2012 primary debate cycle. ABC, NBC, and Fox News partnered with Yahoo, Facebook, and Twitter respectively. The social media component allowed Americans to participate in the debate, and thereby, elevated the level of civic engagement and transformed traditional presidential debates into active agents in the democratic process. Many of the 2012 primary debates attempted to take civic engagement one step further by enabling real-time feedback features. Viewers could go online during live telecast to Tweet, comment, or answer a poll question under the assumption that their responses would influence the ensuing debate conversation.
Yet, most of these debates failed to bring the social media aspect to life. Television networks repeatedly bypassed commentary from social media in favor of the moderator’s questions. This series of letdowns highlighted a larger problem within the current debate format. The debates have shifted away from a public entitlement towards a media three-ring circus. Rather than asking questions that are of the public interest, moderators—who are journalists by day—are putting their own priorities, or their network’s priorities first.
Jay Rosen and Amanda Michel, both formerly of The Huffington Post’s OffTheBus, identified this issue in late 2011. With the help of the Guardian US and the NYU Studio 20 journalism program, Rosen and Michel attempted to come up with a “citizens agenda” approach to campaign coverage. In their co-authored editorial, they mapped out their idea for the project:
The initial goal of this kind of journalism is to expose the demand for news and views around problems the voters see as real and urgent. In other words, what do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes in 2012?
In order to figure out what the voters thought candidates should be discussing, the Citizens Agenda staff had to first see what wasn’t being talked about. Rosen and Michel’s team of journalists tallied every question that had appeared in a 2012 primary debate so far and grouped them by topic:
This list was then matched against a list of identical topics ranked by Guardian readers based on relevancy and importance. The Citizen Agenda project also targeted a Twitter campaign at CNN before their final primary debate in February of 2012. People were urged to Tweet a question that they felt the news media had either avoided or spent too little time addressing to CNN’s moderator using the hashtag “#unasked.” Several prominent blogs and websites including TechPresident and Grist, got in on the action as well. Despite the Citizen Agenda’s efforts, CNN ignored the #unasked campaign completely. The network maintained their usual format and chose not to incorporate any questions solicited online.
Networks have enjoyed a monopoly on debates for decades. Many networks may have felt pressure to partner with a social media outlet this year in order to remain competitive with CNN’s “innovative” move back in 2007 and to bring in larger audiences. Twitter and Facebook have millions more users than networks have viewers. After all, networks depend on ratings, and it is in their best interest to keep viewers interested before, during, and after the debates. The capabilities of today’s interactive media allow them to do just that. However, business move or not, these integrated debates continue to be relevant online through discussion on blogs, Tweets, link shares, and YouTube clips. The fundamental issue here is that the media’s selfish reluctance to diverge from traditional debate practices resulted in multiple wasted opportunities for higher levels of civic participation and rare two-way conversation between candidates and citizens.