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How BuzzFeed and Twitter are teaming up to transform Election Day coverage

Shift in thought

The new media companies plan to provide real-time coverage, analysis, and results of the election. But should election results be provided in real-time? 

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    Buzzfeed employees work at the company's headquarters in New York, Jan. 2014. BuzzFeed and Twitter have teamed up to provide a live-stream of Election Day coverage and analysis on the social media platform.
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In April, more real-time viewers watched BuzzFeed wrap rubber bands around a watermelon until it burst than any other Facebook Live video to date. Now, BuzzFeed is betting it can attract the same record-level audience to Twitter come Election Day.

BuzzFeed and Twitter have signed a deal to live-stream an election special from BuzzFeed’s offices in New York City on Nov. 8, its editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, told The Huffington Post.

The agreement is BuzzFeed and Twitter’s latest forays into the election, after Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms have already spurred unprecedented political engagement among younger Americans. Thanks largely to Facebook and Twitter’s get-out-the-vote campaigns, states such as California, Minnesota, and Indiana saw record online voter registration in September. The presidential debates between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump were the most watched ever, in part, because they were streamed online. Now, Buzzfeed and Twitter want to bring about a shift in the voices that analyze and predict election results the night of.

“This is not going to be your grandparents’ election night broadcast,” Adam Sharp, Twitter’s head of news, government, and elections, told The Huffington Post. There’s “absolutely an appetite among these younger, really engaged” news and politics users for a combined experience of live video and conversation.

“In between all those expected elements of election coverage, I think you will hear from voices you don’t typically hear from representing communities and different perspectives that are not generally represented on the dais of political analysts and campaign surrogates that have become the norm,” Mr. Sharp added in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.

Under the deal, Twitter will live-stream BuzzFeed analysis of incoming results and the night's news, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The duo hope to “demystify” how decisions are called in key races because there “ought to be a very transparent conversation, where these calls are coming from and why, said Mr. Smith, BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief.

BuzzFeed will work with Decision Desk HQ, a crowdsourced, nonpartisan group that has used fax, email, phone and in-person contacts across the country to provide coverage and call primary elections. The Associated Press provides election predictions for 99 percent of the media, Brandon Finnegan, the founder of Decision Desk HQ, told The New York Times.

Both Twitter and BuzzFeed have ramped up their involvement in political coverage this election. Twitter partnered with Bloomberg to live-stream the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. It also live-streamed the two presidential debates, something BuzzFeed points out is significant because more than half of election-related tweets are from users 25 and under. The past two debates have also been the most tweeted of all time.

BuzzFeed has also garnered attention for its investigative reporting this presidential election. Among the discoveries of its four-person investigative team (recently lured away by CNN) was an archived recording of Mr. Trump telling radio host Howard Stern in 2002 that he supported the Iraq War.

But the partnership between the two is, perhaps, more significant because of how viewers have been following the election. While Democrats, Republicans, and Independents continue to spend the most time watching TV of all digital mediums, the amount of time they spend on the internet and on digital apps has steadily increased since 2014, according to Nielsen. Smartphone and tablet ownership among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents has also increased by more than 60 percent from 2013 to 2015. And voters spend the most time on social media compared to other digital outlets such as video clips, blogs, and podcasts.

While BuzzFeed and Twitter expect many viewers to watch television coverage of the elections, they hope to be a secondary source of news, analysis, and predictions. They also hope Decision Desk HQ can provide a slew of more information about election results than the Associated Press or cable news network have in the past.

Decision Desk HQ, founded four years ago by Mr. Finnegan, a truck dispatcher turned conservative blogger, aims to counter the over-reliance on a single source for reporting, Finnegan recently told The New York Times. It also aims to be transparent in how its volunteers gather information and report it. But the service has been questioned for its gamble on getting news out to the public, with Politico writing the night of the Iowa Caucus that Decision Desk HQ is “putting its credibility on the line, as official returns show a close Republican race and the mainstream media held off on a call.” Mr. Cruz won in Iowa by about 4 points, according to CNN. 

“Our focus these days is on the stream of data, rather than the calls," Finnegan told The New York Times. "But all throughout, when there is a close or wrong call, we don’t pretend it away, but publicize it and work to improve our methods to avoid repeating the errors.”

This emphasis on a stream of data and reporting on Twitter has also come under criticism in recent elections. In 2014, Peter Hamby, a political reporter, wrote a lengthy study analyzing 2012 campaign coverage, focusing on how “embed” reporters used Twitter to cover the Romney campaign.

"In it, we see Romney campaign reporters drawing overly broad conclusions from anecdotal events (misinterpreting his big crowds before Election Day as foreshadowing his victory), becoming emotionally attached to the candidate (a few admit to crying on Election Night), and lashing out in fits of pique when not given access to him (which was nearly all of the time)," writes media critic Reed Richardson in a review of Mr. Hamby's analysis. "But for all the Internet’s inherent advantages for more, better reporting, Hamby concedes a breathless, 24/7 contest for breaking irrelevant pseudo-scoops and collecting worthless campaign ephemera played out online in 2012."

In their announcement, BuzzFeed and Twitter focused on providing more transparency about election results to Twitter users. But this audience has proven they can alter the political conversation, sometimes in unanticipated directions. In the hours and days after the second presidential debate, web and Twitter users turned Kenneth Bone and his red, Izod sweater into a media sensation.

While Mark Grabowski, an associate professor at Adelphi University, previously told The Christian Science Monitor we should take trending reactions on Twitter with "a grain salt," he said the platform is changing the way we interact with the election. 

"What's happening with election coverage this year reflects the broader paradigm shift that’s been going on in media coverage since the internet became the primary way Americans get news," said Dr. Grabowski in an email to the Monitor. "No longer is the media setting the agenda, but, rather, media consumers are."

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