L.A. Times launches sharable electoral vote map

Which campaign will get to 270 in November, and how will they do it? The L.A. Times has built an interactive map that allows readers to create and test their own electoral vote scenarios, and then embed those scenarios in their own sites.

Sample electoral vote scenario: (not my prediction; just an uneducated guess for demonstration purposes only)

This is the creation of Sean Connelley, our Flash guru, based on our 2004 electoral vote tracker. The cool addition this time around is the sharing functionality.

We’re hoping to improve on this as the campaign heats up, perhaps adding demographic info and data on past elections by state. Would love to hear suggestions.

Just in time for election season, virtual debates at WhereIStand.com

U.S. Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton agree 85 percent on 108 issues. Sen. John McCain and his Republican Party: 61 percent on 31 issues. Obama-McCain? See for yourself.

whereIstand.com is a new wiki opinion forum that allows users to hold public figures, organizations and themselves up to one another like baseball cards and compare the stats—their stands on various issues—listed on the back.

Here’s how it works: A staffer or reader poses an issue. Then, once approved, anyone is invited to weigh in on that issue and submit a yes-or-no stance. Individuals can then compare themselves to their friends, other users or even public figures, who also submit their opinions.

Well, not exactly. A public figure’s reported stance on any issue is only as accurate as whereIstand.com users’ ability to dig up and present the evidence thereof. For example, Barack Obama did not actually log on to whereIstand.com to offer his stance on gay marriage. Rather, user brianr posted the evidence plucked from the senator’s website and voting history. Users and staff verified it, and others are now invited to “take a stand” of their own on the issue… or even compare Obama to, oh, some other politician and see where they stack up on all debates.

It can be an increasingly fuzzy line between fact and spin out there. That’s where this (almost-)straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth opinion aggregator comes in. Unclear about what Clinton really thinks about dropping out after Pennsylvania? The evidence is there, in her words. Wondering where McCain might fall on an untapped issue? Create a new debate and wait for a whereIstand.com junkie to dig up the evidence. Not what Dan Abrams says McCain’s stance is. What McCain says McCain’s stance is.

Of course, it’s not all election speak at whereIstand.com, where recent opinions range from home-field advantage in the World Series to the circulation of the U.S. penny. But until November, the site does make for a handy political cheat sheet for our esteemed candidates. OJR traded e-mails with whereIstand.com president and founder Nick Oliva to find out more about the logic behind an opinion wiki and how it might help voters decide whom they really support.

OJR: Why whereIstand.com? What void are you filling on the Web?

Nick Oliva: whereIstand.com has a unique model whereby users post the opinions of public figures and organizations (and other users verify these) on the same issues on which members take stands. This makes whereIstand.com the only comprehensive source on the Web for finding the user-verified opinions of anyone on any issue and for comparing people to each other based on their opinions.

Additionally, issues on whereIstand.com are translatable, meaning that the opinions are readable, searchable, and comparable in any language into which they have been translated. The implication of this is that a Spanish-speaking user can see in Spanish where he agrees and disagrees with the candidates for an election in Japan.

OJR: All submitted issues are reviewed for accuracy by staff and users alike. Can you talk about that process? How has it worked out so far, and what sort of issues have you had to turn away?

NO: Members propose issues that interest them in any topic – politics, health, sports, etc. Members and editors comment and debate how well a proposed issue meets our guidelines – and suggest revisions to the wording. Among these guidelines are that the issue be relevant, that the wording be free from bias, and that the wording is “open” enough to find on the Web the opinions of public figures and organizations. At the end of this collaborative process, issues that have not been rejected are framed much as they would be by a meticulous polling organization. An editor then approves the issue and that’s when people can take a stand on it or post public figure opinions.

The best issues are those where there is enough interest that people of different backgrounds and views collaborate in the approval process. The community should decide what is interesting, so we try not to reject issues that represent a legitimate controversy or difference of opinions. The issues that get rejected are usually those that are inherently biased.

OJR: What sort of things are you doing to drive traffic to the site. And, once they’re there, why should they register?

NO: One of the things that drives traffic to the site is when members invite their friends to register and take stands so they can find where they agree and disagree. It’s remarkable how surprising it is to discover some of the opinions of your friends – particular those on which you disagree.

What most drives new traffic is the public figure opinions. When you search the Web, for example, for opinions or comparisons, whereIstand is often among the top results. For example, the following search terms on Google return whereIstand.com opinions and comparisons:

mccain politics

obama outsourcing

angelina jolie writers guild

jordan athletes overpaid

compare barack and hillary

All content is free on whereIstand and registration is optional. If you have taken stands on a lot of issues, and bookmarked the issues and people that interest you, you should register so you can sign back in and access these. A big reason to register is so that others can see your stands and compare themselves to you. Some of the functionality, like proposing issues and commenting on people’s opinions, is limited to registered users.

OJR: Aside from bloggers seeking a syndication platform, who else would bookmark this site? People who really like to argue?

NO: whereIstand.com does provide a platform for bloggers to promote themselves through their opinions, but it’s really much more than that. For example, when the community jumps on a news item, frames it into issues, and starts posting opinions, you can quickly see the lay of the land just based on who is taking which stand. Since public figures are tagged with rich information about their affiliations, you can also see where groups of people stand on an issue. Sports fans may be equally divided on whether Barry Bonds should get into the Hall of Fame, but where do “sports journalists”, for example, stand on the issue? To find that out either somebody needs to do a lot of research, or you need to go to whereIstand.com.

For people that are more interested in the opinions of their friends than of public figures, whereIstand.com provides a forum to argue, but also to interact, engage, etc. Some people find it more interesting to read and comment on a friend’s recent opinions than to see and comment on the pictures from a friend’s recent barbecue.

OJR: I like the way the site aggregates public figures and invites users to compare their own views. Seems like a good way to package the presidential candidates’ positions into something relatively digestible. How do you see that feature playing out as campaign season heats up?

NO: Many people that are following the candidates closely still find it difficult to identify just on what issues particular candidates disagree. Sometimes this is because candidates change or clarify their previous positions – changes whereIstand.com keeps up with. In particular, as the campaign season heats up, whereIstand.com makes things more interesting, for example, by letting people see how the candidates for state elections compare to them and to each other.

Again, what’s most unique is that you can compare any two people and quickly find where they agree and disagree. So, for example, when the campaigns begin to float names as candidates for Vice President, you can very quickly see whether they are a good fit and where they may clash.

OJR: Finally, regarding the tech behind the site’s comparison feature, how are you determining compatible positions? What variables you are looking at?

NO: whereIstand.com doesn’t try to measure “compatibility” per se, but rather points out where there are differences of opinion. The comparison highlights whether two people tend to agree or disagree on the issues on which they have taken a stand. What’s most interesting is when you read the actual statements made that support those opinions. In that sense, whereIstand.com is like an opinion index where you go to find the answer and then click through to read the original source.

Should journalists vote?

Readers want to know what they’re getting. If you are a writer promising them news, well then, the information that you deliver had better be accurate, complete and fresh to your audience. That’s how you build credibility and, over time, audience loyalty.

One of the ways that the journalism industry has tried over the past few decades to reassure the public that its information is accurate is by restricting the political activity of its reporters. But does that work? Does telling reporters not to campaign, not to contribute, or even not to vote, really help build readership?

If recent trends in newspaper circulation offer evidence, the answer is “no.” But it’s hard to separate political restrictions on reporters from the other variables affecting people’s decision whether or not to read a paper.

So, the debate continues. In the build-up to the recent Super Tuesday elections, the editor of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, John Temple, ordered his newsroom’s reporters not to participate in the Colorado caucuses. (Unlike primaries, in caucuses there are not secret ballots and people must declare their preference publicly.)

“Because caucuses are party activities that involve expressing your political position in public, you should not attend them, unless you’re covering them for the Rocky,” Temple wrote, in an e-mail obtained and published by the Denver weekly Westword. Temple later reversed his decision, according to Westword.

[Disclosure: I used to work for the Rocky Mountain News, though when I edited the Rocky’s website, it did not report to Temple.]

Columnist Dana Parsons of the Los Angeles Times explained why newsrooms have restricted their reporters’ political activity:

“Believe it or not, we are trying to cover these controversial social issues with objectivity. And we still have the belief that people belonging to Greenpeace, for example, shouldn’t be covering the environment.

No, that doesn’t mean we don’t have personal opinions. It just means we’re schooled that you can have an opinion and still report both sides fairly.

And if being a party activist suggests you can’t be impartial (which it would), better not to be one.”

My USC Annenberg colleague, and popular blogger, Marc Cooper, added his view in e-mail to me, coming down on the side of allowing some activity, provided that it is disclosed to readers:

“There is no set formula. My personal view is one of common sense i.e. that obvious conflicts of interest must be avoided. Someone actively involved in a campaign should not be writing about it as and objective observer unless, of course, your editor actually wants a first-person piece with a defined POV (This is common in the journals of opinion I have worked for as compared to most newspapers).

Whether or not a political affairs journalist should be allowed to make a financial contribution to a campaign is, again, a matter that is determined on an employer-by-employer basis. Some permit it. Some don’t. Some won’t even allow their reporters to put a partisan bumpersticker on his or her car.

Again, my personal view is that I would prefer political reporters be passionate and engaged in the process so long as they fully disclose their preferences. Their work can then be fully evaluated for its fairness. I am suspicious of political reporters who have no views. This, however, is a minority position within the profession.”

My take? The winners in the Internet publishing business will be those who write with deep knowledge and committed passion for the topics that they cover. Given that few areas of life stand completely unaffected by elected government, every beat will have some political element. A journalist’s job is to investigate and to report on controversies, including political ones. It’s ridiculous to believe that their reporting is not going to ever lead them to conclude that certain parties’ or certain candidates’ positions are better for their audience than others’.

If that’s the case, those journalists’ reporting would be incomplete — even misleading — if it did not acknowledge and explain the reasons for those conclusions.

Asking journalists to remain silent on politics cheats readers by promoting the idea that a well-informed, “objective” source will have nothing to say about which candidates for elected office offer the best hope for a community. If a reporter’s got nothing to say, why should anyone read him/her?

Furthermore, it’s hard to rest any non-participation policy on the need for “objectivity” when there’s a such a schism in America today over what “objectivity” even means.

Almost everyone working in journalism today ascribes to a post-Englightenment view of truth as deriving from empirical evidence. Collect the data, check them, test them, and we’ll support the hypothesis that they support.

But there’s a massive segment of the public that finds its truth not from empiricism but from creed and canon. In its most popular form in the United States, it is the belief by Christian fundamentalists that physical evidence can and is manipulated by the will of God. Therefore, mankind ought to find truth not through the transience of the physical world but through the enduring word of Scripture.

Therefore, any news reporting that relies completely upon empiricism and that does not acknowledge the word of Scripture cannot be considered “objective,” but is, instead, biased, incomplete and flawed.

I believe that this is the reason why so many news organizations are besieged by accusations of “liberal bias,” because they practice journalism according to a belief structure that is at odds with the belief structure of those readers who complain. The journalism industry’s concept of “objectivity” is objective only within a post-Enlightenment, pro-empiricism belief structure that is not held by a significant segment of the population. Or, in my opinion, a great many people currently in power in United States politics.

Journalists cannot be “objective” to all of their readers. The best we can do is to explain how and why we collect and report the information that we do. And if that information leads us to a specific conclusion, we should reveal that and explain how we got there. That’s truly complete reporting. Whether readers choose to believe it, or to challenge it, is up to them.

In short, allow me to quote the E.W. Scripps motto, which I saw every day atop the Rocky Mountain News when I worked in Denver: “Give light and the people will find their own way.”

Which brings up to the question of the week:

Please give us your take on this issue in the comments.

Update: When I talk about journalists, I mean anyone who publishes news online, whether they use they use the Big “J” word to describe themselves or not. Also, after I’ve made my point here, I suppose I should go ahead and reveal that I voted in the California primary. For Hillary Clinton. (I was going to vote for John Edwards, but when he dropped out, I chose to go with Clinton over Barack Obama. But barely. I find Duncan Black’s analysis of the race compelling.)