April 10, 2000

ePolitics

Overview


Many of the most popular online portals do not live up to the promise of the Internet as a gateway to new, unfiltered and diverse information about politics, according to the first-ever study of coverage of the presidential election online.

A close look at the most widely accessed Web portals reveals the dirty little secret of much of the Internet: wire copy-usually from Reuters, a conventional 149 year-old British wire service.

At the same time, the notion that the Old Media of television and especially newspapers use the Internet mostly for “shovelware,” or as a dumping ground or morgue for yesterday’s stories is also largely untrue.

While they run stories from their print or broadcast outlets, the web sites of traditional old media, are much more likely than Internet portals to exploit the Web’s unique capabilities.

On the other hand, the worry that the Internet is a vast bastion of unsubstantiated rumor and innuendo is also false, the study found. The information on the Internet about the campaign is remarkably well sourced-and very little is based on anonymous sources.

These are some of the findings of a new study of political coverage on the most popular Internet sites by the Committee of Concerned Journalists. The study was produced for the Committee by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

More and more citizens are turning to the Internet for news about the presidential election, especially as television abdicates covering the story. A survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found nearly a quarter of Americans are now getting at least some of their campaign news through the Internet [1]. Another study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center and the Alliance for Better Campaigns found that the three major network newscasts are now averaging just 36 seconds a night of candidate discourse [2].

The Internet is also heralded for being a tool for citizen empowerment, for its ability to mix text, audio and video, and for its speed, openness and depth.

But what do citizens find about the election once they move online? How much is the Internet using its capacity? And for all the talk of a diverse landscape of information, how much do sites vary, say from portals like Netscape to online journalism sites like Salon?

To answer these questions, the Committee of Concerned Journalists examined 12 of the most popular web sites that provide news and information, including portals, purely online news sites and sites connected to Old Media news organizations, checking them repeatedly through the day on key dates during the primary season. In all, the study examined 72 political front pages and 286 lead stories on six selected dates from late February to just after Super Tuesday, March 7.

In addition, it studied the front pages of the print editions of the New York Times and the Washington Post for the same time period as a basis of comparison between print and the net.

The goal was to get a first look at what the Internet offers citizens looking for election news.

Among the findings:

  • Sites did a fairly good job of updating the news. There was a completely new lead story in almost half of the downloads, 45%, and an updated story another 10% of the time.
  • But frequent updates don’t necessarily equal better understanding. Sometimes the most important event of the day was missed or too quickly bumped down the page. For example, in the four downloads on February 28, AOL never led with John McCain’s speech in Virginia Beach attacking Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, even though it was not only the story of the day but perhaps the critical event of his campaign.
  • A full quarter, 25%, of all political front pages contained no original reporting.
  • Substance is hard to find on the net, too. Only 2% of the lead stories studied dealt with the candidates’ policy positions, records or core beliefs, less than in the newspapers. Half the sites offered some kind of link to this information.
  • Sometimes the political pages themselves were hard to find. Netscape, for instance, buries its political news menu within the site. The user must first click on a lead story and then wind his or her way through to the political news page. CNN, in contrast, required only one click on the “Politics” bar in the upper left corner of CNN.com.
  • A quarter of all front pages had no interactive element. This 25% came entirely from web-born portals.
  • The Washington Post and MSN seem to provide the greatest overall mix of news, links to additional information, interactive elements and audio-visual material.
  • Lead stories were well sourced. More than half had at least five sources. Nearly 90% lead with a named source.

The study examined the political front pages and lead stories of 12 of the most popular web sites, according to ratings data supplied by Media Metrix, a leader in Internet and digital media measurement.

The sites studied included portals of the five most popular properties on the web that carry news: AOL Network’s Netscape; AOL Network’s AOL News (not the subscriber news page but the portal AOL.com) Yahoo! Sites’ Yahoo!, Microsoft’s MSN (which links to Slate’s political page), and Go Network’s Go, which is owned by Disney and gets news supplied by its subsidiary ABC News.

The study then added the three top web news sites that supply election news: MSNBC (The NBC News run site), Pathfinder/Time Inc. (which is really Time magazine’s site), and CNN.

The study then selected two prominent Internet magazine sites and two newspaper web sites for inclusion not based on Media Metrix data: These included Salon, National Review Online, The New York Times on the Web, and Washingtonpost.com.

Studying this new medium requires a new approach and a new methodology-which over time will undoubtedly be refined. Given the continuous nature of the web, we chose four separate download times to examine, 9 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 4:30 p.m. and 9 p.m., based on the normal news cycles, the posting times for web sites and times that users would naturally access the web.

1″The Tough Job of Communicating with Voters,” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, February 5, 2000.

2″Network Newscasts Offer Fleeting Glimpses of Presidential Candidates,” The Political Standard, Volume 3, Number 2, March 2000.