Recently I've been involved in administering live online chats with candidates in local elections. The experience has given me a chance to think about how traditional journalistic values -- accuracy, fairness and accountability, to name a few -- are applied in such a nontraditional setting.
For the non-journalist readers in the crowd: When covering an election, a reputable news organization makes every effort to give each candidate fair play. In a newspaper, for instance, this means each candidate should get roughly the same amount of coverage, in the same section/page of the paper, with similarly sized photos and/or graphics. (This is the ideal goal, of course; most news organizations fall short of perfect fairness.)
Here, then, are those concepts of fairness translated into the relatively new world of online chat. Note that these are suggestions; it'd be nearly impossible to follow every guideline 100% precisely, due to any number of reasons -- from schedule conflicts to limitations on workload/manpower to human fallacy. Each guideline is derived from the basic principle that each candidate should be treated equally.
- Schedule chats during similar times of the day. A chat taking place at 9:30 a.m., near the typical news site's peak traffic point, will undoubtedly attract more participants (and more attention) than a chat held in the afternoon, when traffic tends to decline. Availability of chat transcripts can help to lessen this problem.
- For each candidate chat, give users an equal amount of time to presubmit questions. If Jack's chat is on Wednesday, Jill's chat is on Friday and the chats are announced on Tuesday, users have more time to submit questions for Jill's chat than for Jack's.
- Give each candidate the same amount of time to chat, or let each candidate chat as long as he or she wants, or allow each candidate as much (or as little) time as needed to answer all submitted questions. These three (contradictory) guidelines each have pluses and minuses. In the first case, each candidate has the same amount of time, but slower typists (or thinkers) are at a disadvantage. The second case gives control to candidates themselves but tends to produce chats of varying lengths. The third case isn't fair to readers who might tune in late. Regardless, a news site should pick one of these standards (or a combination) and stick to it.
- Require each candidate to type for him/herself, or give each candidate equal access to a typist/transcriber. Again, a news site should choose one of these mutually-exclusive standards. I prefer the second, because not all people are comfortable typing.
- Give each candidate equal access to a spell-checker. This is an interesting issue, because some argue that, if a candidate can't spell, tough.
- Adopt a standard for which types of user-submitted questions will be allowed and disallowed. Since this relies on human judgement, it helps to have the same human making the judgements for each chat.
- Adopt a standard for editing/rewording user-submitted questions. (Same as above.)
What did I forget? Please feel free to add your own suggested guidelines.