Television networks and online services are gearing up to offer an unprecedented volume of real-time coverage of the presidential election using the latest high-tech tools.
America Online said today it will provide live coverage of the presidential and vice presidential debates on the Web, as well as a forum for online chats about the event. And for the first time, TV networks will display election data, including results from exit polls, in real-time "virtual" studios.
CBS News, for example, will draw on the power of an arsenal of 200 PCs, and Silicon Graphics' supercomputers and workstations to crunch polling data and immediately present it on a virtual set constructed of 3D graphics. The control over polling data and graphics will be "literally in the hands of CBS anchorman Dan Rather," according to network executives.
Most political observers praise the use of cutting-edge technology to report and analyze information more quickly. The Internet, for example, "expands the ability to get more information," said Lorena O'English, director of legislative services for Project Vote Smart, a nonpartisan voter information system.
But some raise concerns about whether the media will use real-time results from exit polls to prematurely declare a winner, thereby discouraging some late-night voters from turning out at all. Such concerns are already familiar in television coverage of the elections but may be heightened by broader and faster availability of the data.
Political experts such as Mike Traugott, a professor at the University of Michigan, wonder whether online services will abide by the same guidelines as the networks: agreeing not to broadcast results until after the polls close.
Networks and online services are aware of these potential problems but say the information won't be used to jump the gun in offering election results.
The information will be used to analyze and report why people voted in a certain way, said Kathy Frankovich, director of surveys for CBS News in New York.
AOL executives agreed. "For the first time, we can offer the public a way to participate in this critical moment of the campaign without leaving their living rooms," said Kathleen deLaski, AOL's manager of politics.