May 12, 2008

Real-time response is a second-by-second measurement of individuals’ reactions to the presidential candidates debates while they are happening. But it is not only another method of opinion polling; instead, it gives the public more clout in shaping election coverage.

“Voters are tired of being managed by the media,” says Rita Kirk, professor of corporate communications and public affairs (CCPA) in Meadows School of the Arts. “Instead of members of the media deciding what’s important in the debate, and often choosing moments based on what makes good television, voters show us what they feel is most important.”


Undecided Democrats participated in a real-time response
focus group for CNN on the SMU campus Feb. 21.

Using palm-sized electronic dial meters, officially called Perception Analyzer Dials, members of focus groups signal their reactions to the issues raised, the arguments and the bluster. On a scale of 1 to 100, they “dial up” when they like what they hear and “dial down” when they don’t. Their assessments register in real time; thus, the name “real-time response.”

While studying how the public uses blogs, social networking sites and other online tools, Kirk and Assistant Professor Dan Schill developed the idea of giving voters a voice in network coverage through real-time response focus groups. They pitched the idea for debate dial testing to CNN last year. “We made the case that maybe the network didn’t always get it right when it came to deciding what voters think is important,” Kirk says.

Schill used real-time response methodology while in graduate school at the University of Kansas, where he was a research assistant for DebateWatch, a research and voter education project of the Commission on Presidential Debates. “It’s not a new technology, but it’s a quick, reliable method for analyzing live voter reaction,” he says.

CNN signed on, and the professors’ real-time response focus groups now play a prominent role in the network’s online coverage. They started with the first New Hampshire debate in June 2007 and probably will continue through the final head-to-head debate in October, Schill says. In addition, during the second New Hampshire debate, held before the primary in January, they dial-tested for ABC/Hearst-Argyle Television, sponsors of the event.

Undergraduate students are involved throughout the real-time response process. “We take small groups of students with us to the debates when we can, because it’s a great opportunity for them not only to be involved with the research, but to go behind the scenes and see how it all works,” Kirk says.


The palm-sized electronic Perception Analyzer Dial measures focus group responses

They also learn how difficult the preparation can be. “We were on the phone for hours and hours trying to persuade people to participate in the focus groups,” says Esmeralda Sanchez, a junior with a double major in CCPA and Spanish, who assisted with the New Hampshire and California debates. “I think most people are skeptical when you first start talking – they think you are trying to scam them – so it takes awhile for them to understand that we want them to be part of something important and influential.”

Senior Amanda Taylor, a CCPA and French major who worked on the New Hampshire and South Carolina debates, says the experience was meaningful to her as a voter. “I believe it’s important that voters get back their voices, and that’s what the dial tests do. It puts the focus on what’s really important to voters, not what makes great ratings.”

Focus groups of 10 to 30 people come to the TV studio about an hour before the broadcast to learn how the dials work and to answer pre-debate questions prepared by Kirk and Schill. To lighten the mood and let participants practice moving the dial, the interview starts with general topics, like choosing a favorite fruit from among four choices, before turning to the critical issue: “If you were going to vote right now, whom would you vote for?” These answers are compared to their post-debate appraisals.

Once the cameras roll, the dialing begins. Much like an EKG registers a heart’s rhythm, a color-coded graph maps the peaks and valleys of focus-group opinion in real time on the CNN Web site, where the network’s debate analyses are archived.

“Because the sampling is so small, the results aren’t released as a poll, but we do see some interesting shifts,” Kirk says. Before the New Hampshire Republican debate, for example, focus group members said they expected Romney to lead the pack; after the debate, they ranked his performance behind several other candidates. In February, he dropped out of the race.

Kirk believes the dial tests have had a major impact on the networks’ online presence. “Rather than mirror the TV coverage, ABC and CNN added informational depth to their online coverage with the real-time response component.”

The wider trends “are similar to those we would expect to see in any political debate,” Schill says. “People respond favorably when candidates talk positively about their backgrounds, when they show a sense of humor and when they make positive, broad, value statements. People react more negatively when candidates attack each other or when they are overly detailed in the explanation of their policies.”

A Pew Research Center study released in January stated that 24 percent of Americans regularly go online for political news, almost double the percentage during the same period of 2004. Kirk believes the dial tests have had a major impact on the
networks’ online presence. “Rather than mirror the TV coverage, ABC and CNN added informational depth to their online coverage with the real-time response component.”

Real-time response research is part of a study for an upcoming book by Kirk and Schill to be published in 2009. Kirk describes the book, Consent of the Governed, as an exploration of “how voters are talking back to candidates and the media” and are using technology “to reconnect with the political process and take control.”

–Patricia Ward