Plan SOON to cover the debates

You’ve already taken my advice to put the presidential and vice presidential debates on your calendar. Now is the time to think hard about how you’ll cover them: previews, debate nights and follow-ups.

In each case, let’s think about how you will share this experience with your audience and how you as journalists will add your skills to the conversation.

I’m going not to address here how to cover the students who are actively campaigning, such as Young Democrats and Young Republicans. You know how to do that and whether the advocates are important to your audience. As I’ve said before, I don’t see how it adds value for your audience to hear a student make the same talking points the national campaigns are peddling. If you can go beyond that with the activists, fire away.

Some thoughts on each stage of debate coverage:


Advocates for a female presidential moderator got their wish, but Univision was disappointed at the lack of a Latino voice in the debates. Are moderators important?

Try crowdsourcing some debate questions. Wander the campus and/or use social media to ask students for good questions. I would disqualify questions that wouldn’t apply to both candidates, although it might be funny to list “attack” questions your most fervent advocates can concoct. This all doesn’t necessarily lead to an “article.” It might be an interesting alternative story form. Or what if you wandered around with a camera and had students say, “President Obama, Gov. Romney, I’m John Doe of Anystate College. My question is …”

Nobody really likes the moderator debate format, but modern debate history is full of them. Other elements of the history may also be interesting for readers, depending on how creative you can be with presentation.

All the previews present a non-deadline opportunity for a designer and editor/reporter and photo editor to sit down together and come up with something cool.


In person, consider covering locations where groups will watch the debate. Group dynamics can be revealing.

In the world of social media, it might be interesting to recruit some students to comment during the debate. Perhaps the students who had the most thoughtful ideas for questions. Maybe key interest groups. You’ll need to think about creative use of hashtags, groups, etc., so non-student politicos don’t invade your discussion.

Someone should pay close attention to the debate telecast and social media to see if any candidate statements particularly resonate with your audience. Student loans, some hot local issue? The big news organizations will have teams standing by to instantly fact-check disputes. You might have one research-savvy staff member ready to explore the issue that turns out to be the most interesting. Post quickly and use social media to promote the value you are adding.

Did any of those “crowdsourced” questions get asked? Even if not, that might be worth noting.

You might assemble a panel of “experts” to grade the candidates’ performances. Traditionally, rhetoric professors are recruited for this. Political science, psychology, journalism profs also might be willing. Do you have a strong debate team? You have to decide whether your audience has an appetite for this expert commentary. But if you can’t get this online same night and/or in print within 24 hours, I would suggest considering whether it’s going to be perceived as old news.


Stay on any key issue you identified in the debate. Look for opportunities to do more local reporting.

Ask students who watched if they’ll watch the next one. Ask students who didn’t watch if they’re growing more interested.

And again, what questions do your readers feel need to be asked?


I  believe we have a civic duty to encourage participation in democracy. So publish your state voter registration deadline and how-to-register info in every issue. And feature it online with the appropriate links.


About adviserdavid

Student media director, Georgia Southern University

Posted on August 16, 2012, in Reporting. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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