Social news sites react to the ABC-debate

Social news sites were highly critical of what was seen as low-quality journalism by ABC; but it is hypothesized that this criticism was also motivated by pro-Obama sentiment.

AFP / Getty ImagesOn April 16, ABC News broadcast a televised debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, moderated by Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos. You can read the transcript of the debate here, courtesy of The New York Times.

(For those of you unfamiliar with the format, it goes on like this: the moderators ask a question, after which each candidate has a given amount of time to respond; interrupting the other is in theory not allowed, but once a candidate has finished his or her answer, the other has the chance to reflect on what was said.)

After the opening statements of the candidates, the moderators dealt, in their questions, with 8 personal topics (such as Obama’s relationship to Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Clinton’s allegations about her trip to Bosnia), and 6 topics related to current issues: Iraq, Iran, taxes, gun control, affirmative action and gas prices. In total, more time (about 53 minutes) were given to discussing personal topics than to current issues (about 37 minutes). Topics such as health care, immigration or broader trade and economic policies were not mentioned in the debate.

Among others, the Washington Post, The New York Times, the Time magazine, and, as the comments on ABC’s website testify, a significant part of the audience deplored the debate as superficial, sensationalist (but uninteresting) and unsubstantial.

The social news sites I’m monitoring reacted in a similar manner. In four days following the debate, 33 stories about the debate were voted front page worthy on Digg (“2008 US Elections,” “Politics” and “Political opinion” sections), Reddit (“Politics” section), Newsvine and Propeller (“Politics” channell). In the one-week period after the broadcast, the number of stories grew to 35 (Digg: 13 stories, Reddit: 11, Newsvine: 7, Propeller: 4).

Two notes on the methodology here, without really going into technicalities: first, a “front-page worthy” article on Digg refers to the combined front page ofthe “2008 US Elections,” “Politics” and “Political opinion” sections, but not the overall, unfiltered front page of the site. Similarly, a popular news item on Reddit’s and Propeller’s “Politics” section might remain invisible to those who only view the generic, overall front page of the site. Second, there might have been more stories about the debate, but here, as in my research in general, I only include in my sample the 8 most popular articles from each sampled news channel (Digg’s 3 subcategories, Reddit, Newsvine and Propeller) every day.

Keeping this in mind, in the four days after the debate, a total of 138 front-page articles were included in the sample, and 24% of them dealt with the topic of the ABC debate (the respective figures are: Digg:29%, Reddit:34%, Newsvine: 22%, Propeller: 9%). This is in strong contrast with the generally highly fragmented news output of social news sites.

All but two of these stories criticized ABC for the perceived low quality of the debate that “shunned real issues and instead focused on spectacle.” The stories originated from the following sources: Andrew Sullivan (Atlantic.com), AP, barackobama.com, CBS, CNN, Comedy Central, Crooks and Liars, Democracy Now!, Drexeldems, Editor & Publisher, Fox News, Media Matters, MotherJones.com, MoveOn.org, Talking Points Memo, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Real McCain, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and Time. In addition, two of the items were opinion pieces written by perceivedly independent private individuals (not affiliated with any kind of media organ (e.g. a Reddit user)), and several of the articles quoted directly, or referred to, viewers’ comments that ABC received on its website.

It would be tempting to see this as “victory of the wisdom of the crowd” over shoddy journalism. Well, for one thing, the fact that the quality of political discussion could become an important topic on social news sites is certainly a good sign,

BUT

first of all, I wouldn’t like to equate personality focused political discourse with “shoddy journalism” (even if questions like “Do you think Rev. Wright is as patriotic as you are?” tempt to do so); and second –

– after reading the articles in question, I’m not entirely sure whether most of the angry commenters resented the – perceivedly – low quality of the debate because it goes against their principles of good procedural democracy, or because when it comes to “personal-spectacle-politics,” it seemingly hurts Obama more than Clinton. (I mean, in some cases, it’s pretty obvious, e.g. here.)

During the debate, Obama often hinted at, and subsequently said openly, that this is exactly the kind of discourse that he intended to change – which might be true, but this doesn’t change the fact itself that this current tone of campaign is causing him more trouble than to his rival. So the bottom line is, I’m not sure whether those commenters who condemned the debate did so because they would genuinely be interested in more substantial talk, OR because they support Obama, and think that the media is treating him unfairly.

I’m guessing both of these factors are important to some extent.

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