Election reporting – Turning bar charts into a multimedia show


It was federal election time in Germany yesterday. Since this blog isn’t primarily about political commentary, I shall refer you here for a more detailed summary of the results, if you’re interested. In a nutshell, Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrat party (CDU) will form a new centre-right alliance with the pro-business Free Democrats Party (FDP). Since this blog is primarily concerned with communication and all its related matters, I took a closer look at how the election night was reported by mainstream and social media.

I think it’s fascinating to see how in particular broadcasters are trying really hard to reinvent themselves come election night. I can imagine them putting together a task force of creatives who wrack their brains over how to revolutionize what is essentially a bunch of bar and pie charts.

Not surprisingly, American television is way ahead of anything I’ve ever seen in Europe regarding election night coverage. CNN just won an Emmy Award for the job they did at the Obama election. To be honest, I just remember those hideous holograms of commentators that they beamed into the otherwise almost entirely computer-generated studio.

German broadcasters, namely ARD & ZDF, kept it a bit more down to earth at this election (surprise?). Not too many fancy 3D-animations, no commentators jumping up and down in front of gigantic results screens. Instead, sound and sober studio reporting. Well done there. No adventures into social media, web 2.0, and all that good stuff, then?

Revamping the “Elefantenrunde”

Yes, there was, during the highlight of each German election: the Elephants’ Table (“Die Elefantenrunde”). That’s where the heads of all parties come together shortly after the results are out to irrationally accuse each other of lying or behave like Octoberfest visitors around 1am discuss what to make of them. Traditionally, this involved the politicians talking in the studio and the audience quietly enjoying the show. But not this time.

This time, the ARD’s Election Night Coverage Creative Task Force thought it might try something new. Next to the live stream on its website, the ARD invited comments from the audience via Facebook. These took up quite a substantial part of the screen and they kept coming in at a speed that made it impossible to follow both the comments and the politicians interrupting each other in the studio.

The immediate question with this element of interaction is, of course, whether it represents a valuable contribution to a) how broadcasters cover an election night and b) the democratic process as a whole. Concerning a), I must admit, I was pretty intrigued by the comments as they kept popping up. One of them actually said, “These comments are way more interesting than the TV discussion itself.” There’s some truth to that. From an audience perspective, it definitely had some entertainment value.

We would be asking way too much if we now expected this little new feature during the “Elefantenrunde” to stir up more political discussions or to engage a large number of previously disinterested voters. There are serious issues with the relevance and thoughtfulness of many of the comments. At times, they felt like those text messages sent in and displayed during a music video on MTV. I would also suspect that the number of Facebook commentators was just a very tiny fraction of ARD viewers, not to mention of the electorate.

Nevertheless, I still think it’s a step towards more interaction with the audience and towards linking up with social media platforms. Keep it up, but don’t try too hard (i.e. don’t start showing holograms of Facebook users during studio discussions, or something of that nature).

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