LIGHTS, CAMERA and VOTES COUNTED: ELECTION NIGHT BROADCATS as a SOCIO-TECHNICAL DRAMA
Dr. İPEK Z. RUACAN
NewsLabTurkey Research Hub’s new report entitled Lights, Camera and Votes Counted: Election Night Broadcasts as a Socio-Technical Drama offers many insightful findings. Before turning to them, it is worth underlining that as with many other countries, academic research into election night broadcasting is insufficient in Turkey. We hope that post-graduate researchers will fill this gap in the literature and summarize the main findings of our report as follows:
Election night broadcasting developed in tandem with information technology: The development of new technologies that enabled the fast flow of election results into newsrooms led to the invention of special election night programming. The first such program was broadcast by the BBC on 23 February 1950 and the format eventually came to dominate election nights. The USA election night broadcast in 2000 turned into a broadcasting catastrophe as networks, one by one, called the wrong candidate as the winner. The events of the night later became the subject of a special inquiry in the USA Congress. Many pointed to excessive competition among the networks as the root cause of the failures of the night. At the same time, others started discussing whether the American press strated to exert a destructive impact on American democracy.
The East Coast Effect in the USA continues: For decades, the USA political establishment has been contemplating how to prevent the “East Coast Effect” on voters. With no restrictions on election day broadcasts, media organizations in the USA start broadcasting as soon as exit polls become available from the eastern states while voting still goes on in the western states. Efforts to suppress these early broadcasts have failed consistently as the first amendment of the USA constitution guarantees the freedom of the press in very certain terms.
Live blogs take the center stage during media blackouts: Citizen journalism and live blogs become critical in cases like Kenya or Iran where the state imposes a complete ban on reporting election results. The Ushahidi citizen journalism movement that started in 2007 in Kenya is the best known example of this.
Hybrid media is rising on election nights: In many countries, election night broadcasts are characterized by the interaction between traditional media actors and new media actors. Chadwick (2017) labeled this interaction process as the emergence of a “hybrid media” system. In most cases, traditional media actors still lead the conversation on election night but new media vocabulary is entering the traditional media domain. Hybridization does not necessarily characterize the Turkish media where broadcasting quality has been steadily declining. What happens on Turkish election night broadcasts is at best a mere reading of tweets rather than a creative interaction between traditional and new media actors.
Election night narratives deeply impact societies and individuals: A narrative about the results that becomes dominant on the night of the election leaves a decisive impact on societies as well as its members. “The man [Recep Tayyip Erdoğan] won”, the narrative that characterized the 2018 presidential election night in Turkey, offers a striking example of this lasting impact. To the opposition, “the man won” signals resignation to Erdoğan’s rule whereas his supporters use it to celebrate Erdoğan’s invincibility. This narrative continued to characterize the 2023 presidential election and turned into “the man did not win” when Erdoğan failed to win on May 14th and became “the man won again” after Erdoğan’s victory in the run-off on May 28th. Linguistic communities that shape around these election narratives have a strong impact on individuals. “Yes, we can”, Obama’s campaign slogan that hinted at the hope that the first black president in the history of the USA could be elected is a case in point. It became “yes, we did” upon Obama’s election and assumed a central place in the personal narratives of millions of his voters. “Yes, we did” provides a sense of belonging in a community that made history.
Angry voters research the most: Several studies conducted in the USA demonstrate that angry voters seek out the most information on election night. As they do so, angry voters turn to prestigious newspapers and news websites to make sense of the results while anxious and enthusiastic voters usually turn to TV networks. These different groups of voters tend to share their feelings in different ways as well. While angry voters are likely to share their feelings face-to-face within their close social circles, other voter groups share more on social media. But these results are not generalizable and more cross-country research is required.
From choropleth maps to thematic cartograms: Choropleth maps which visualize election results by matching an assigned color to each political party or candidate with the administrative units that they win are an extension of the horse race coverage that dominates the pre-election period in the media. These maps, however, portray countries more divided than they may actually be and they are under increased scrutiny. Thematic cartograms are on the rise in their place. Cartograms use different criteria to visualize election results such as the population of each city. In a population-themed election result cartogram, the cities of Bayburt and Istanbul cease to be mere colors; they instead become Turkey’s smallest and largest cities with a population of around 85.000 and around 16 million respectively.
Dr. İpek Z. Ruacan graduated from the International Relations department of Bilkent University in 2000. She completed her master’s degree in the same field at the London School of Economics in 2002 and subsequently earned her doctorate degree in Political Science and International Studies from the University of Birmingham in 2014. Dr. Ruacan, who has worked as a faculty member at MEF, Koç, and Kadir Has universities, contributes to NewsLabTurkey with research reports.