Viewers ‘second screen’ debates

The presidential primary debates have been big business this election cycle. Viewership records have been set for Fox News (24 million viewers), CNN (23 million), CNBC (14 million) and Fox Business (13.5 million), destroying old marks across the board. Viewers also have begun live-tweeting the broadcasts in record numbers, a practice sometimes called second screening.

This seems inevitable, and may be innocuous. So voters are scrolling through their Twitter timelines as politicians recite practiced lines. Is this just extra fluff on top of a largely low-substance diet of political news and entertainment? Communication technology researchers are trying to find out.

First, the good news. Second screening may prompt viewers to more closely analyze the information candidates present by way of what’s known as central route processing, according to J. Brian Houston of the University of Missouri. Because they are more actively engaged, these plugged-in voters often apply greater scrutiny to the claims being bandied about by presidential hopefuls and also-rans.

Second screeners, who are by definition already online, are also more likely to proceed with donations, petitions and other forms of engagement with the democratic process, to the relief of every civics teacher. According to a study led by Homero Gil de Zuniga of the University of Vienna’s Media Innovation Lab, the second screen can act as a bridge from television viewing to concrete involvement.

As with any technology, second screening can also play to people’s baser instincts. According the University of Tennessee’s Jaclyn Cameron, those following simultaneous reactions to live events are more likely to see performances, and their “winner,” in the same terms as the hivemind. Exposure to an echo chamber may prevent second screeners from speaking out about their opinion even if they are not swept up in the tide.

Following the live-stream of Twitter reactions also draws people’s attention to nonverbal communication rather than the verbal combat on the less-small screen, according to a study by the University of Wisconsin’s Dhavan Shah. Shah’s team merged a shot-by-shot analysis of the 2012 first presidential debate, in terms of President Obama and Mitt Romney’s body language and oratory, with real-time measures of the reaction on Twitter. The findings show second screening may put the public in the un-evolved position of choosing their leaders on pre-verbal indicators of ability.

The phenomenon can be seen as amplifying the big shift from radio to TV. The first televised presidential debate in 1960 pitted a tan, well-rested Kennedy against a sickly Nixon, and the influence of image in campaigns has been growing ever since. Color, HD and other broadcast advances have made optics more of a king-maker than ever.

When following online, Shah’s research suggests viewers may be even more likely to be swept up in physical performances.

Twitter may also exacerbate the problems commonly associated with mainstream news’ campaign coverage. While traditional news is more likely to cover the issues raised in the debate, Kyle Heim of Seton Hall found that the Twitter stream is dominated by meta-coverage — comments about the moderators, the staging and other superficial details.

Second screeners may come away even more cynical, especially if they employ Twitter as their first screen in lieu of witnessing an event. The 140-character limit of tweets makes substantive coverage more difficult, a fact that Heim says strengthens the need for traditional editorial gatekeeping.

Still, there’s hope the critical tone that pervades viewers’ Twitter commentary may be heard, and used to improve a debate format with which few are satisfied.

Share our journalism