The VP Debates: An Adventure in Clutter

Perhaps it is because I associate CNN with Atlanta, a city dear to my heart, that I care so much about how badly they choose their on-screen visualizations. Last night I watched before, during and after the debate, which meant I was as informed as could be about their graphics (and even saw the gratuitous use of this Minority Report touch screen.)

This time there was one focus group (32 people), helpfully labeled “Ohio Undecideds” divided into women and men. CNN did apparently fix the scale problem from the first debate, where the reaction line never changed. This time we even saw some ceiling effects:

(Or, I suppose, these Ohio Undecideds were much more polarized than those watching the first debate.)

Now, obviously, I’m a big believer in sampling. However, when they interviewed the 32 people after the debate, it seemed pretty clear that they were mostly registered Democrats or Republicans who said they were undecided so they could be on CNN.* This was allowed almost 1/5th of the total screen during the debate, and was present during the entire debate. I suppose when another large square of the screen is dedicated to distractedly flashing “Vice Presidential Debate”/”Debate Night in America” we can no longer pretend to hold television (even when it the purpose is presenting information) to any rules (e.g., “frequency of use“.)

Continuing my curmudgeonly gripes about on-screen graphics, “points” from six political analysts were displayed on the screen in what I first thought were pie charts, but soon was not sure what to think.


This photo was taken early in the debate. The math became far more difficult by the end

I’ll outline the rules. Analysts could give positive or negative “points” to each candidate when they made a statement. Unlike well-trained Olympic judges, even the analysts on the same ‘side’ were wildly all over the board (some giving a miserly 1-4 points and others apparently madly pressing their button as if they were on Jeopardy.)

My main issue was with load and changability: To get a true number from any analyst I have to subtract the negative points from the positive one. For example, in the picture above, Begala has Sarah Palin at 0, though my first inclination was to add those two numbers. If I want to get an idea across analysts, I have to do that for each one, hold the final number in memory and move to the next (or switch from adding to subtracting as I move down and across the screen.) Then I have to remember the final number for a candidate and process the next candidate.

Worse, the analysts could change their already given points, making a mess of the idea of +/-. Just because one candidate had 3 positive points did not mean they wouldn’t have 2 or 1 the next time you checked. This undermines the idea that they are getting additive positive scores for good points they make and negative scores for incorrect, unpopular, or lame points they make. If that were the case, each number should only increase throughout the debate.

Perhaps it was the large amounts of pizza and chocolate consumed at the debate party, but once all analysts reached double digits, I gave up and tried to ignore the flashing numbers.

As another note, many of these analysts had party biases, however their leanings were not noted on the screen. It would have been helpful to have them separated on each side by that pre-debate bias.

Last, my favorite moment came after the debate when someone at CNN printed out the analysts pie-chart-ish results and put them on screen to talk about them while the actual graphics were still up on the sides of the screen!

*I mean no offense if one of the 32 reads this and doesn’t fit that claim. There were a few true Independents interviewed.

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