By: Nu Yang
University of Missouri professors team up with newspapers to analyze Twitter responses to presidential debates
Big Bird. Binders full of women. Malarkey. Thanks to Twitter, these phrases spread like wildfire through social media this election cycle. With more and more viewers turning to handheld devices to sound off, how can media outlets hear these voices?
That’s the question University of Missouri communication professors Mitchell McKinney and Brian Houston tried to answer by examining how debate watchers were responding to the candidates on Twitter. The two professors are also current Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute Fellows.
McKinney said the idea first came to him in the spring during Republican primary season, but the team wanted to take the analysis beyond the odd moments that got people’s attention, such as actor Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair at the Republican National Convention.
“We met with newspaper editors to see how we could incorporate social media with their reporting,” McKinney said. “It led to a discussion of partnering with newspapers.”
The three partners are the Florida Times Union in Jacksonville, The Dallas Morning News, and The Seattle Times. McKinney said each newspaper designated a hashtag specific to its location. During the debate, readers could use the hashtag with their social media commentary, and after each debate, the tweets labeled with the hashtags were collected using Topsy Pro, which provides social media analytics software.
McKinney said that based on the analysis, the team saw spikes that were not parallel to the viral catchphrases, but more closely related to policies that affected the community. For example, he said Dallas viewers tweeted more about energy policy than zinger moments.
“It’s heartening to see that when you start drilling down to a smaller level, you see policies do matter,” McKinney said.
McKinney said a survey was also distributed to people who tweeted about the debates to see if tweeting helped them develop a closer relationship with their paper. He said he hoped the project showed news organizations how to build the best practices for using social media in their reporting and with engaging readers.
“It’s about putting civic journalism into their reporting, and Twitter is the best way to capture those voices in the community,” he said.