Guidelines for fair, accurate online candidate chats

Written by Adrian Holovaty on March 27, 2003

Recently I've been involved in administering live online chats with candidates in local elections. The experience has given me a chance to think about how traditional journalistic values -- accuracy, fairness and accountability, to name a few -- are applied in such a nontraditional setting.

For the non-journalist readers in the crowd: When covering an election, a reputable news organization makes every effort to give each candidate fair play. In a newspaper, for instance, this means each candidate should get roughly the same amount of coverage, in the same section/page of the paper, with similarly sized photos and/or graphics. (This is the ideal goal, of course; most news organizations fall short of perfect fairness.)

Here, then, are those concepts of fairness translated into the relatively new world of online chat. Note that these are suggestions; it'd be nearly impossible to follow every guideline 100% precisely, due to any number of reasons -- from schedule conflicts to limitations on workload/manpower to human fallacy. Each guideline is derived from the basic principle that each candidate should be treated equally.

  • Schedule chats during similar times of the day. A chat taking place at 9:30 a.m., near the typical news site's peak traffic point, will undoubtedly attract more participants (and more attention) than a chat held in the afternoon, when traffic tends to decline. Availability of chat transcripts can help to lessen this problem.
  • For each candidate chat, give users an equal amount of time to presubmit questions. If Jack's chat is on Wednesday, Jill's chat is on Friday and the chats are announced on Tuesday, users have more time to submit questions for Jill's chat than for Jack's.
  • Give each candidate the same amount of time to chat, or let each candidate chat as long as he or she wants, or allow each candidate as much (or as little) time as needed to answer all submitted questions. These three (contradictory) guidelines each have pluses and minuses. In the first case, each candidate has the same amount of time, but slower typists (or thinkers) are at a disadvantage. The second case gives control to candidates themselves but tends to produce chats of varying lengths. The third case isn't fair to readers who might tune in late. Regardless, a news site should pick one of these standards (or a combination) and stick to it.
  • Require each candidate to type for him/herself, or give each candidate equal access to a typist/transcriber. Again, a news site should choose one of these mutually-exclusive standards. I prefer the second, because not all people are comfortable typing.
  • Give each candidate equal access to a spell-checker. This is an interesting issue, because some argue that, if a candidate can't spell, tough.
  • Adopt a standard for which types of user-submitted questions will be allowed and disallowed. Since this relies on human judgement, it helps to have the same human making the judgements for each chat.
  • Adopt a standard for editing/rewording user-submitted questions. (Same as above.)

What did I forget? Please feel free to add your own suggested guidelines.


Posted by Sara on March 27, 2003, at 10:34 a.m.:

A potential concern: Candidates not typing for themselves are subject to a slight form of gatekeeping by their typist. The typist, depending on varying spelling and punctuation skills, can make a candidate appear more or less educated than the case may be.

If different typists help with the chats, the candidates will be unfairly represented by the typists' levels of accuracy. And small things like spelling, punctuation and the use of emoticons can sway potential voters, just like the firmness of a handshake or perceived sincerity of a smile makes an impression.

Some candidates don't know how to type and their hunt-and-peck would seriously slow their chat, to the annoyance of users. They need help. But a typist, no matter their level of skill with language may be, skews the voice of the candidate, simply by his presence.

Solution, anybody? Or is this something only a die-hard copyeditor would be worried about?

Posted by Julie on March 28, 2003, at 3 a.m.:

For the reasons you mention, I also think it's important to provide each candidate -- or at least each candidate in the same race -- with the same typist if possible.

Though, as a user, I'd really rather see a live video chat, so I can see the candidates' reactions not filtered through anyone's typing accuracy, including their own. See the smile, see the panicked look in the eyes... and sure, you still want a good typist there putting out a print transcript for the archives and for anyone who doesn't have the bandwidth or care about watching the chat. I'm just surprised we haven't seen more of this (...I mean how cheap is a PC-cam?)

The fairness issue I really worry about is the quality and balance of questions received. A journalist who is concerned with fairness will (ideally) try to approach each candidate with a balanced, unbiased mix of tough questions on election issues. While the beauty of an online chat is that it engages the voting public and allows people to ask questions journalists might not think to ask, the public is not necessarily concerned with balance or fairness. Even if it's unintentional on the part of participants, one chat could take a very ugly, attacking turn while another candidate is lobbed softballs for 20 minutes by a totally different set of readers. And that doesn't seem fair at all. Anyone have problems in this area? Success in resolving?

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