The New Mexico News Port used the social media site Thursday in a new way: to host political debate.
Democratic Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Republican congressional hopeful Mike Frese battled it out for one hour via tweets under the watchful eye of about 20 journalism students and two professors.
The Twitter debate may have been the first of its kind, said Kate Nash, News Port editor, adjunct faculty member and writing coach for the Daily Lobo.
“It’s definitely never been done at UNM before,” Nash said. “Overall we’re excited with how it went.”
Candidates were tweeted questions by Nash and allowed three tweets of their own to respond. The candidates were also given the chance for rebuttal tweets in response to their opponent’s answers.
The debate was held during News Port founder Michael Marcotte’s intermediate reporting class and all of the students participated in different ways, Nash said.
The purpose of the debate was twofold – to get reactions from the congressional candidates on issues pertinent to college students and to educate the students on an important facet of online journalism, she said.
“It was fun,” Nash said. “I think the students were engaged.”
Although the students were responsible for fact checking the candidate’s answers, developing follow up questions and organizing the candidates answers in a linear fashion for future reference, the Twitter debate was largely the brainchild of Nash herself, Marcotte said.
“It’s sort of modeled off of Twitter chats that I’ve seen in other environments, mostly academic,” Nash said.
Kris Klarer, a senior journalism major, said he enjoyed the experience, that it brought a lot of information about the candidates to light.
“It was interesting,” Klarer said. “It was really surprising to see one of our candidates start off doing absolutely nothing on Twitter and then becoming more and more efficient as we went.”
Marcotte, a visiting associate professor, said he has not seen any debates held on Twitter, although he has seen something similar in town hall style conversations.
“I know of one case where it’s been done and that’s the Barack Obama Twitter town hall,” Marcotte said.
Social media has been expanding in recent years to include more relevant and important content, both from users and media outlets, he said. In order to keep up with the times, the News Port is striving to stay on top of any new advances in online journalism and make sure UNM’s students are ready to enter a new and changing field.
“I believe very strongly that we’ve got to figure out social media as a way to provide information and connect people,” Marcotte said. “We’ve got to figure out how to use the tools correctly.”
Nash said she agrees with Marcotte, that social media is integral to successful reporting.
Online content is crucial to the success of the News Port, especially in the realm of social media, she said
“We don’t have a printed product so web presence is pretty much the name of the game for us,” she said. “We do a lot with social media.”
The Pew Research Foundation released a study in August that stated most people are less likely to talk about divisive political topics on social media than they are in person.
However both Nash and Marcotte said they disagree.
Nash said she thinks social media is the perfect way for young people, like traditional college students, to become engaged in the political process in an arena they are used to and comfortable with.
“I think it’s effective,” Nash said. “I don’t think a lot of the students in our class would have otherwise had any interaction with the candidates and this gave them that chance.”
Although there were a few hiccups, Nash said everyone learned quite a bit on how to handle a debate like this.
The team at the News Port hopes to put on another event and will be better prepared to do it even better, she said.
“We’d love to do it again,” Nash said. “We would probably, if we did it in the future, set out more time to ask more questions that the students came up with and that audience members want to throw out there as well.”
Daniel Montaño is a staff reporter for the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter @JournoByDaniel.