Students watch, react to US election day

Andrea Römmele's political communications seminar took its election watch party online, debating media coverage and returns.

“Trying desperately not to brave that night [okay, morning for me], alone,” tweeted a Hertie School student at the end of October.

“We could organize a Teams call, for all those who are considering being awake up or not to sleep on Nov. 3rd. Just a thought,” a friend from Andrea Römmele’s Political Communication in Modern Democracies seminar answered.

“That sounds amazing!! I’m planning to catch a few hours sleep and get up around 4 to follow the chaos.”

That’s how an online election-night party of Römmele's students came to be, during Berlin’s semi-lockdown to combat a second coronavirus wave. On 3 November and throughout the night, students from the class, participating from Berlin to Madrid to California, met up online to watch the returns roll in.

“We all had watch parties in 2016 and 2018, and so we wanted to find a way to be together on election night,” said Charlotte Gehrke, an exchange student in the Hertie School’s Master of Public Policy programme visiting this semester from Sciences Po in Paris. “About 10 students joined in. People were dipping in and out of the chat all evening and Professor Römmele was there too – we talked a lot about the media coverage and communications aspect of the election coverage. We also talked about what comfort food people were eating, and where they were getting their news.”

During the course of the evening, students posted links in their chat and watched Römmele, Dean of Executive Education and Professor of Communication in Politics and Civil Society, on Germany’s ZDF TV, where she appeared on the political talk show “Markus Lanz” as part of a panel on the US election.

Examining media policy and political communications in practice is an important part of Römmele’s course, and the election provided plenty of fodder for debate. The class of 24 students spent some time looking at election coverage in the run-up to the vote. For their post-election day seminar on 4 November, Römmele invited Alexander Heffner, host of the PBS television show "The Open Mind", to participate in a class discussion analysing the role of media in the election outcome.

Students asked questions about whether the US media has created “parallel universe” in which every subject – like the pandemic – is treated as a partisan political issue, and how political communicators can challenge or reshape narratives dividing the US electorate.

Hefner said that, as path to winning the popular vote, he thought Joe Biden had focused on confronting what is viewed as an authoritarian strain in United States at the moment, but that the basis of his message was about the electorate's shared experiences, such as the human cost of the pandemic. At the same time, he noted, “Trumpism isn’t going to go away.”

Students debated the reliability of polling, how coverage of protests earlier this year had affected voting, the influence of social media, as well as the future of American democracy and the media's role in in shaping it.


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