April 10, 2000

ePolitics

Political Front Pages

What Was There

On the surface at least, the Internet offers plenty of news. Two-thirds of all front pages had at least 16 election-related stories. The exact number varied significantly from site to site, not because of the type of site but because of different judgments of how much was too much. Four sites, Go/ABC News, MSN, MSNBC, and Salon, tended to pack their pages with at least 20 stories. The Washington Post, the New York Times and the National Review also offered a high number of stories (16+). CNN ran a modest amount (11-30), as did Yahoo!! (11-15). Pathfinder, Netscape and AOL News normally ran a low number of stories (5-10).

When you consider the percent of stories with original reporting, the numbers are somewhat less impressive. A full quarter of all front page stories had no original reporting. Original reporting was especially scarce on the so-called web-only portals, sites that aggregated material from supposedly as many sources as possible. Three of the most popular portals, Yahoo!, Netscape and AOL News (which is the news from their portal, not their subscriber-only page) offered no original reporting at all. They relied primarily on wires, with Reuters as the default. Yahoo! also included a handful of stories from National Public Radio.

The Old Media did the original reporting. Go/ABC News, MSNBC, the Washington Post and the National Review offered a high level of original reporting (16+ stories). Time Inc.'s Pathfinder had fewer stories in total, but every one was original work. The New York Times, MSN and CNN offered moderate levels (ranging from 6-25).

Interactivity

The Internet has the potential to allow citizens to "take part" in the news in ways never possible in print or broadcast. Users can "vote" for their candidate of choice or respond to a survey that is later written into a story.

Yet surprisingly few interactive links appeared on the pages studied, especially among the web-only sites. Yahoo!, Netscape and AOL News did not have a single interactive component to their front pages. MSNBC, Go/ABC News and the New York Times, offered a minimal amount of interaction as well (1-2 links).

Only one of the major portals, MSN, demonstrated strong initiative, offering eight interactive elements at every download. Still, the Washington Post offered the most. In more than two-thirds of its front page downloads, there were 10 interactive links.

The remaining sites, Pathfinder, the National Review, CNN and Salon offered moderate levels of interactivity (3-7 such links).

Unfiltered Audio and Visual

Another powerful potential of the Internet is access to raw audio or video like a candidates' debate. The sites studied here tended to sit at either extreme: offering almost no unfiltered information or making it an important aspect of their political front page. And that decision bore no relation to the type of site.

Two of the portals, one TV network and one magazine opted out of this feature (Netscape, AOL News, MSNBC and the National Review). Another third of the sites (Go/ABC News, Salon, the Washington Post and the New York Times) normally offered at least seven such links, including one link to a searchable video database sponsored by C-SPAN and Virage [3]. The remaining third (Yahoo!, CNN, Pathfinder and MSN) offered one or two. Most often, these audio-visual links were from C-SPAN.

External Web Sites

Web sites also can serve citizens by offering links to other relevant organizations or sites. For instance, could a citizen read the New York Times site and then click to Congressional Quarterly to check someone's legislative record? Or read a conservative viewpoint in the National Review and then click to a straight news account from the Associated Press?

To measure the extent to which each site did this, we counted the number of links to the home page of other news organizations or to voter groups [4].

Again, we found this more limited than many might expect. Netscape, the portal of the most popular property, which by definition is meant to help people navigate the Web, linked to no external news or voter sites. Nor did AOL News or the New York Times.

MSN, another portal, offered the most links to external news and voter sites-indeed 16-to-20 news sites and 21-to-25 voter sites.

Its cousin, MSNBC, which is controlled by NBC News, only linked to two news sites and no voter sites.

Yahoo! and CNN had a moderate to high number of news links (5+) but a low number of voter links (2 or less). Pathfinder, on the other hand, proliferated on links to voter sites, but offered very few links to news sites.

The remaining sites-Go/ABC News, National Review, and the Washington Post–offered low numbers of both links (0-4).

Page Links

In addition to linking to other home pages, a site could further aid citizens by offering links to specific pages of information. This could be information written and compiled by that web site, or it could be a page of information that someone else compiled. For example, Yahoo! could link to its own candidate biographies or to voter.com's page of biographies.

The study looked for three types of links: policy pages, candidate background pages and pages on the electoral system.

At a time when critics worry that mainstream news organizations may no longer feel they can afford to offer a lot of this information in a 22-minute broadcast, or even in a cable venue fighting for ratings, Internet news sites could easily use such links to provide this information to interested citizens at virtually no cost.

Despite the widespread perception of depth on the Web, we found that the most popular sites offering election news largely ignored this possibility. It is no easier to find out where the candidates stand on policy and values on the most popular net sites than it is elsewhere. Less than half of the sites, mostly those connected to a journalism company–MSNBC, the Washington Post, the New York Times, Go/ABC News, and also Salon regularly offered even one link. CNN offered a rare link in two downloads.

Biographical information was a little more available. The newspaper sites of the New York Times and the Washington Post carried the most (6 or more). Pathfinder always offered four and Salon usually offered two. But again, the portals-Yahoo!, Netscape, MSN and AOL News–offered none. Neither did the National Review.

The most popular page links were to pages of information about the electoral system and the calendar, which help citizens understand the process. Three sites, MSN, MSNBC and CNN always offered at least 7 links. Go/ABC News, the New York Times and the Washington Post offered moderate levels (4-7+ links). A citizen could not find any of this information on AOL News or the National Review's political front page and only once did Netscape offer such a link.

3 For the purposes of this study, the CSPAN/Virage database was counted as one link even though it contains a multitude of speeches and other raw material. MSN and CNN contained this link as well.

4 We did not include sites owned by the same company, such as a Washington Post link to Newsweek. But we did include links to sites when there was a partnership such as the Washington Post's link to Congressional Quarterly.