Ted Koppel had a terrible thought. Speaking recently to a crowd at Ball State University about economic events, social trends, and especially technological advances quickly altering our modern way of life, the legendary newsman prophesied—at first, enthusiastically—a day in the not-too-distant-future when emerging media permits masses of ordinary Americans to "vote" in real-time on important issues of the day.
After only a moment's reflection, however, he conceded maybe that isn't such a good idea after all.
In the audience a few feet away, members of Brandon Waite's spring 2010 political science seminar were prompted to share a few knowing smiles. Weeks before, as part of the development of a potential interactive TV interface based on content provided by public affairs network C-SPAN, the group already had considered that increasingly real possibility. It also reached the same conclusion: At this stage, such capabilities represent a bigger risk than benefit to American democracy.
"The system still is too vulnerable to relatively minor influences that, depending on variables from what time it is to the weather, get magnified by television and end up having far more impact than they might deserve otherwise," says Waite, who studies the ways that advances in communications technology shape Americans' perception of government and politics in their daily lives.
He points to a vexing situation today confronting both the political left and right.
"Look at what happens in the caucus states, where just a few hundred activists can have a huge impact on the outcome of an election," he says. "Now, imagine groups like the Tea Partiers or their more liberal counterparts trying the same thing, only on a national scale and through the power of live television…No, for the near term, I think that type of public 'engagement' is better for its entertainment value, like for American Idol."
In the meantime, Waite, coteacher Vinayak Tanksale and their seven-student cohort of journalism, graphics and computer science majors have produced a model for an interactive cable experience that addresses what Waite sees as a prerequisite to the kind of popular public referendum imagined by Koppel. That is, creating a better-informed electorate.
A sample of an interactive interface as envisioned by Emerging Media Faculty Fellow Brandon Waite and students in his spring 2010 political science seminar.
With days worth of C-SPAN footage from the summer 2009 U.S. Senate confirmation hearings for then-Supreme Court nominee now Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the team developed a possible interface allowing users to access contemporaneously on screen a variety of pertinent information—from the personal and political biographies of all the Senate Judiciary Committee members to definitions of legal terms used during the proceedings to summaries of previous cases heard and ruled on by Sotomayor.
"Our goals setting out were pretty simple: identify the key players, the key terms and the key cases," Waite explains, noting that key C-SPAN executives such as President Rob Kennedy and Vice President Peter Kiley were at different times directly involved in helping guide the students and project. "The really difficult part, as we knew it would be, is not the conveying of information, but rather helping the viewer to understand what the information means."
As a "traditional" journalism major at Ball State, Bob Culp, '10, worked his way up at the The Ball State Daily News including stints as its news editor and wire editor. Still, he knew that in today's changing news environment of Web sites, blogs, social networks, streaming video and other innovations, gaining greater experience with emerging media would expand both his knowledge base and possible career options. So when a colleague at the Daily News mentioned the C-SPAN project, Culp was quick to sign on.
"Something like this has never been done before using this technology," says the aspiring newshound from Monticello, Indiana. Ball State is one of only two universities in the nation — the other being New York University (pursuing another project unrelated to politics) — using proprietary software supplied by industry group OEDN in order to demonstrate its potential in various media environments.
"To be involved with this kind of program, knowing there's only one other like it in the country, that's fantastic," Culp enthuses. He hopes that his involvement in and contributions to the project broaden the appeal of his résumé.
The university's nationally recognized Center for Media Design (CMD) also collaborated in the effort, as the university's liaison with C-SPAN and through direct research support. Waite and his team employed CMD's expertise in eye-tracking technology to help determine where to position various elements of the interface amid the overall "screen real estate."
C-SPAN's Kiley said the network is "proud to have contributed to this project and pleased with the interactive prototype developed by the Ball State University students." He added that "the project makes a positive contribution to an important cable industry initiative to provide interactive applications for viewers and the learning taken from these students' efforts certainly is helpful to our technological development."
Center for Media Design