CBS Voter Panels: What’s Their Purpose?

The September 26 presidential debate arrived and finished with a bang. A record number of roughly 80 million tuned in. The next day the CBS Evening News incorporated and intriguing component: groups of voters. 

CBS devoted nearly half of its political coverage to the three groups of voters – those from California, Texas and Pennsylvania.

CBS Evening News

CBS Evening News

Here are the talking points and demographics of each state:

California (Los Angeles): Latino voters—none who support Trump. Topics: Clinton’s promises, Trump’s immigration attacks, Trump’s offensiveness.

Pennsylvania (Philadelphia): Trump watch party. Topics: Trump’s personal appeal, Clinton’s successful attacks at Trump.

Texas (Dallas): World Affairs Council watch party. Topics: Clinton’s policy clarity, Trump’s lack of substance.

Some believe Trump did not win the night, but others said he didn’t lose it either. A majority interviewed were Clinton-backers.

What’s the effect of this segment on those watching at home? Is it a breath of fresh air to hear from the average person rather than network analysts? Or is voter education best suited for network experts?

Does and extended segment like this help the voter make an informed decision.

NPR’s Michel Martin doesn’t see this as a learning opportunity. Rather, it’s for validation. “This is the kind of segment I call the ‘you’re not crazy’ segment, where viewers get to hear their own thoughts reflected back to them and they can test or assess their own thinking against that of others,” she said.

“It also showed that CBS is committed to covering the country and hearing from different voices,” she explained. She was surprised to see Trump and Clinton supporters sharing common space with no qualms. “I haven’t seen a lot of that,” she said.

Publisher of the Tyndall Report, Andrew Tyndall, argues it’s important to hear from the broader electorate. “It is the job of all reporters— not just those working in television news—to interact with individuals from all walks of life to get a sense of the variety of ways in which they think and talk about the world.” he said. Tyndall stresses the reporter must bring life to these soundbites, too.

More from our panel:

Michel Martin:

  • This isn’t scientific, if it were, you’d need to require that every focus group or M.O.S. ( man on the street) segment confirmed to whatever the latest polling data showed demographically and in opinion. That’s hard to do, time consuming and really not feasible on a daily basis. Of course NOT doing it that way carries risks: I once did a focus group of 12 voters with two African Americans in a year in which Jesse Jackson was running for President and won 8 southern primaries—both of the African Americans were die hard Republicans and Jackson haters. That was crazy! Still we got something out of it, and the people there definitely got something out of it. Minds were blown.

Andrew Tyndall:

  •  A pollster can tell us with disembodied and abstract data how the electorate at large perceived the candidates’ presentations. A video interview with individual members of the electorate may energize those perceptions with expressive, personal, vernacular language free of the pollster’s professional jargon.
  • Television reporters have an extra responsibility: not only to get a sense of how people think and talk about the world; but also to reproduce those expressions with soundbites that are incorporated into their stories.
  • Television news needs to demonstrate that it is on its audience’s side, rather than on the side of elites talking down to it. Thus the phenomenon of vox pop, from the Latin vox populi, voice of the people.
  • That is the test that you have to use to assess these CBS reports from Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Dallas: not whether they were in and of themselves objective analyses of the debates (of course they were not); rather did they enliven the raw material of an objective analysis with dynamic, vernacular, relatable audio-visual content — giving an idea a human face and voice? Or were they a lazy way of sidestepping rigorous analysis by offering superficial, clichéd soundbites instead?


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