Election Night Coverage Gets Out Of Comfort Zone

Reuters Content Solutions

As the race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton reaches the finish line after 16 months of saturation coverage, media organizations are reimagining how to cover election night – using Facebook video, real-time data projection, and virtual reality to engage all types of readers and viewers.

To make audiences feel as though they are in the same room with reporters and candidates as election night unwinds, the Huffington Post is turning to livestream video. Patrick McMenamin, a supervising producer at the site, calls it a “game changer.” The content appears directly in users’ Facebook newsfeeds – whether they are looking at the page or not.

“Livestream is an extraordinary way to connect and engage with readers,” says McMenamin.

“For those eager to get a sense of the mood among voters in swing states, we’ll have reporters on location speaking to voters and sharing comments directly with them,” he says. “For readers who want to be inside the party at campaign headquarters, we’ll be in the thick of supporters, instead of separated on raised platforms for live hits. For those who want to hear more from our reporters, reporters go live after they file to answer viewer questions.”

Virtual reality offers an even more intimate experience.

NBC News, which will turn Rockefeller Center Plaza into “Democracy Plaza” on election night, as it has before during this election season, has also created a “Virtual Democracy Plaza” that will feature watch parties, live Q&A discussions with political experts, and other events.

The news outlet has paired with AltspaceVR, a social virtual-reality platform, becoming “the first major network to invest in creating a series of live events to cover the U.S. election inside of virtual reality,” according to an announcement.

NBC News will feature live coverage through virtual reality starting at 6 p.m. on election night – you just need a headset or computer.

“It’s a way to really expand the coverage and the physical footprint of the real-life Democracy Plaza,” says Jane Fang, director of business development for AltspaceVR. “It’s a shame that folks who can’t be in Manhattan can’t enjoy that. The initial thought was, ‘how do we make Democracy Plaza available to anyone, anywhere?’ Anyone with a headset can feel like they’re there.”

Users can join the action with an Oculus Rift CV1, HTC Vive, or Samsung Gear VR. Or, for a 2D experience, participants can use a PC or Mac and visit altvr.com/nbcnews to sign in.

Previous VR events included debate-watch parties followed by Q&A discussions with Al Roker of the “Today” show and Steve Kornacki of MSNBC.

“What’s unique is, it’s like you’re in the same room as them,” says Fang. “When you see them through a TV screen or a stream on your laptop, there’s no way for you to actually interact with Al Roker or Steve Kornacki. In these events, we have the ability, with our platform, to allow audience members in real time to ask a question, just as if they were face to face.”

In a pioneering use of data that challenges Election Day convention, Slate, the online newsmagazine, is partnering with Votecastr, a predictive-analytics company, to project winners of presidential and Senate races in real time on Nov. 8.

Votecastr experts are following the same model that campaign headquarters typically employ – tracking polling activity and then sifting the data through a process called predictive turnout modeling.

“The media have sat on their hands during Election Day over the course of the day, so what we will be offering is a real-time estimate of how many votes have been cast in key battleground states and how we think they break down between the candidates based on our statistical model,” says Sasha Issenberg, chief strategist and editorial director of Votecastr.

“We think that for the 12 hours or so before – and then when people are voting and there’s absolutely no news about it – there’s a lot that we can add,” he says.

The startup, composed of journalists, data analysts, and election technologists, is training hundreds of turnout trackers who will be assigned to preselected polling sites in states including Florida, North Carolina, Colorado, and Nevada.

“We stop producing data when polls close,” says Issenberg.

But election experts expressed concerns about how early projections could influence voter turnout – and election officials.

“There’s always been concern, especially on the West Coast, that early projections of winners may depress turnout in other parts of the country,” says Joe Lenski, executive vice president of Edison Research, which conducts Election Day exit polling for major news organizations.

While there is no solid evidence that early reporting could weaken voter turnout before polls actually close, Lenski says election officials could use that theory as a cudgel to hold back the amount of publicly available data in future races. For many years, media outlets have agreed to withhold data from their own exit polling until after polls close. But Votecastr and Slate’s projections would break that long-standing embargo.

“I would be fearful if election officials are not comfortable with how that data is being used on Election Day – that they in the future might try to restrict the use of that data,” he says. “Those relationships could be jeopardized if election officials feel their data is being used to project elections before everyone casts their vote.”

A spokesperson for CNN would not yet reveal plans for election-night coverage. But during the campaign, CNN created a new interactive app to dispense up-to-the-minute news about Trump and Clinton.

The app offers “insights,” a breakdown of the latest poll information in easily digestible slides that users can swipe through until the end. A recent insight showed the fallout from a 2005 video that shows Trump making lewd comments about women, with slides dubbed “Who’s Winning?” and “Does It Matter?” along with the most recent polling information.

“We wanted to take this opportunity to enter the market with a product that tells people more than ‘he said, she said,’ and create an experience that allows the user to dig deeper on stories and issues in the race,” says Juana Summers, editor for CNN Politics, who says the network will continue to use the app to cover the new administration. “There are a ton of politics apps out there, but very few are as aggressive with data and give this robustness of user experience.”

In addition to its Facebook livestream video, in the course of the campaign the Huffington Post has featured short videos without anchors. Some feature candid moments from the candidates’ prior radio or TV appearances.

The videos are straight footage that have been dug up by reporters and producers. “These highly researched, well-informed pieces have really resonated on Facebook,” says Meg Robertson, supervising producer of HuffPost Video. “They are short, sharable, and … shine a light on the truth of Trump’s campaign.”

The news website also launched a podcast series called “Candidate Confidential,” which features interviews with losing candidates for high offices, like former Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and ex-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

The series “explores the human side of elections,” says Sam Stein, senior politics editor and a co-host of the podcast. While media outlets have been thinking outside the box when it comes to covering the election, Issenberg of Votecastr says they should push the limit on Election Day coverage rather than relying on time-honored practices.

“I hope that what happens after Election Day is that every news organization has to contend with why they don’t treat Election Day itself as an opportunity for newsgathering and data collection,” he says. “And not just fall back on the idea that, ‘We’ve never done it before, so we don’t feel comfortable doing it.’”

As the campaign winds down, one of the presidential candidates is leveraging social media for a much-needed boost – and as a possible prelude to Trump TV.

Campaign advisers for Trump will co-host a show on the candidate’s Facebook page using Facebook Live every night through Election Day, Politico reported.

The show begins airing at 6:30 p.m. and leads into campaign rallies that Trump plans to hold almost every weeknight until Nov. 8. The half-hour broadcasts will feature other Trump surrogates like Kellyanne Conway as well as his children.

Trump first announced the Facebook Live component before the third presidential debate, with pre- and post-debate shows. The post-debate show garnered 8.7 million cumulative views on Facebook, according to Politico, which counts people watching for longer than three seconds.

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