Story and photos by Aaron Weintraub
For many on the University of Oregon campus, Nov. 8, 2016, was a night to remember. Hundreds of students swarmed outside in the middle of the night to protest and share their shock that a candidate many of them had estimated poorly — and underestimated — had emerged as the Electoral College victor.
As these students took to the streets, Allen Hall sat almost completely empty — with the exception of one room. Allen 314, transformed into a live investigative newsroom for the UO School of Journalism and Communication’s role in ProPublica’s nationwide Electionland project, had been filled with a steady buzz all day.
The SOJC was one of 13 journalism schools around the country that joined such industry partners as Google News Lab, the USA Today Network, Univision News, First Draft, WNYC and the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism for the Electionland project. More than 85 SOJC students worked in shifts from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., using state-of-the-art digital tools to monitor social media for reports of voter intimidation, long lines and other issues that might surround the highly controversial presidential election. The SOJC newsroom’s job was to track reactions from polling centers in Oregon, California, Washington and Hawaii.
Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism Damian Radcliffe, who was in charge of supervising and coordinating the project at the UO, said that monitoring social media is now a vital part of the journalist’s job. It’s particularly crucial to the democratic process, especially in light of the contentiousness of this year’s national campaigns, and expected in a media landscape that is now largely dominated by instant individual reactions.
“The media landscape has changed enormously since 2000,” Radcliffe said. “In particular, we’ve seen the rise in social media, and with that, people using social media to express themselves. So that creates great opportunities for journalists to access and share stories that they couldn’t do in past elections.”
Investigative journalism in the digital age
The students who signed up for Electionland spent the day using a variety of digital tools. “[Our students are] using all sorts of cutting-edge technology, from software that’s used in newsrooms across this state and elsewhere,” Radcliffe said. “That provides an opportunity to develop valuable skills that, yes, look good on a resume, but also provide an experience where they don’t work with these tools in the abstract, but in a real, live learning experience.”
The SOJC students learned how to use Facebook Signal, Dataminr and Tweetdeck to track voters’ social media posts in real time. Dataminr is an alert system that notifies a newsroom when messages with certain buzzwords are sent out on Twitter, while Tweetdeck provides a visual interface to view Twitter hashtags and trends as they surge in designated areas of the country. Facebook Signal accomplishes similar tasks across Facebook and Instagram, surfacing relevant trends, photos, videos and posts.
Kirsten Williams came to the SOJC from Idaho, and she had friends who voted for candidates from both sides of the aisle. It was a hard election for her to watch, but she was grateful that Electionland gave her the opportunity to report the facts as they came in that day. In fact, Williams surfaced one of the most dramatic stories of the day, a mass shooting near a school that was being used as a polling center that resulted in its temporary lockdown.
Williams credits the digital tools with allowing her to find the story before any national media outlets had managed to report it. “On Dataminr, somebody tweeted that they were on lockdown because there was a shooting at a middle school down the street from them,” she said. “From there, it was just a matter of verifying the information and submitting it to a more general message board on Slack, where anyone can submit news tips for the day.”
Williams and the other Electionland volunteers learned that a large part of analyzing social media reactions involves applying a healthy level of journalistic skepticism regarding the source that is sharing the information. Williams said she spent much of her Electionland shift just making sure the information coming her way was real.
“It could be a robot. We confirm them via Facebook Signal, seeing if they tweet often or if they have 50,000 tweets that are random and are clearly just trying to get people’s attention,” she said. “Then it’s confirming whether there’s actually a polling station there, or examining the photo they’re providing. You can check Google Earth and see if that’s actually what that polling station looks like. There’s a bunch of different steps you can go through, and it depends on what’s being tweeted.”
Keeping bias at bay
The events of Election Day 2016 had and will continue to resonate with students on campus. As many began to celebrate or despair across the country, a small group of journalism students sat quietly, ignoring their own political leanings so they could spend the night pursuing stories as investigative journalists.
SOJC senior Hannah Steinkopf-Frank’s primary responsibility in the newsroom was contributing to the Electionland blog. Throughout the tension-filled day, she dug through the flow of tweets to find positive West Coast voter experiences to post.
“We want to share what we’re learning and what we’re finding, but also share some of the lighter, happier stories to come out of this Election Day,” Steinkopf-Frank said. “I think it really is important that we report on issues that make it harder for people to vote, but I also think voting is fundamental to our democracy, so we should also celebrate people exercising their fundamental right as citizens.”
Although Steinkopf-Frank and many of her fellow Electionland volunteers disagreed with the outcome of the Nov. 8 vote, their newsroom duties compelled them to monitor reactions to the numbers rolling in with an impartial eye. Electionland proved to be a test in an important part of the job these young journalists aspire to: holding their own political convictions at bay while reporting without bias on what was happening around them.
Though she joked that she was having a panic attack as she was leaving for the night, Steinkopf-Frank was satisfied with her work. “I would describe it as much as an experiment as a way of gathering and telling stories,” she said, reflecting on her eight hours of tracking on Dataminr that day. “You know you’re doing what you want to do when you lose track of time while you’re doing it. And that’s exactly what happened to me today.”
Aaron Weintraub is a senior in the SOJC studying journalism and Arabic, which he hopes to use as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East. This is his first year working as a digital media intern for the SOJC’s Communications Office. In the past, he studied Arabic and Islamic studies in Keble College at Oxford University and at the Qasid Institute in Amman, Jordan, where he worked as an independent feature writer during the summer of 2016. He has also served as a writer and photographer for the UO’s environmental publication, Envision Magazine. You can find Weintraub’s collection of photography, much of which he took while traveling, at aaronweintraubphotos.wordpress.com. When he’s not writing or shooting photos, he enjoys climbing, biking and other activities that occasionally injure him.