At a time when the Internet has become the primary source of election news for a growing number of Americans, political news web sites have clearly evolved but have also taken some steps backward, according to a new study of coverage of the presidential primary season online.
Sites have come a long way in offering users a chance to compare candidates on the issues-something almost entirely absent in 2000. They are also no longer merely morgues for old newspaper stories and provide more chance for users to manipulate and customize information.
Yet the major Internet news sites make less use of interactivity, contain less original reporting, have fewer links to external sites, and offer fewer chances to see and hear directly from the candidates on their election front pages than they did four years ago, according to the study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which did a similar study in 2000.
Sites varied widely in style and content, and the organization was often confusing. Sometimes the richest sites were the hardest to navigate.
Still, the continuing reliance on traditional wire service and newspaper stories for content means that, contrary to fears about the web as a source of unsubstantiated rumor and innuendo, the content here is carefully sourced and documented.
In the end, there is a long way to go before the major news sites fulfill the promise of a truly new medium-offering interactivity, citizen involvement, and direct access to diverse sources of information.
Various measures suggest the Internet is becoming a more important part of how people get political news. A January 2004 survey of Americans about political news by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that, “The Internet, a relatively minor source for campaign news in 2000, is now on par with such traditional outlets as public television broadcasts, Sunday morning news programs and the weekly news magazines.” The survey found 13% of Americans reported getting “most of their news about presidential campaign” from the Internet. In September 2003, according to Media Metrix, a record 150 million Americans went online, and somewhere between half and two-third’s of those who go online get news there.1
Four years ago the Project conducted the first study of election news online. It found heavy use of wire copy and a fair number of links to outside sources, but it was difficult to get a comprehensive sense of the candidates from any site.
Now that the Internet has become an important election tool for campaigns, and a major source of information for many news consumers, how have things changed?
To answer that, the Project built on its earlier study of online election coverage. Eight of the twelve websites from 2000 still exist. The Project re-examined those sites, plus two others that are now among the most popular in the country. These ten include a mix of online only sites, old media newspaper sites, those from television and two journals of opinion. The sites were downloaded twice each day, following the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. In all, the study examined 60 political front pages on 6 days and 138 lead stories on 7 selected dates.
The goal was to get an early look at what major web sites were offering citizens who were looking for election news and to evaluate how that had evolved from four years ago.
Among the findings:
- Users were even less likely to find original reporting online this year than in 2000. More than a third of front-page stories online (37%) were wire copy from secondary sources, up from 25% in 2000. Much of that so-called original content, moreover, involved modifying wire copy rather than being original bylined stories.
- Roughly half of all sites at every download contained more than 20 stories-and some, such as MSNBC and the Washington Post, contained almost double that many.
- As was true four years ago, going into and out of primary contests at least, users would be hard pressed to find a lead story that dealt with anything other than the latest back and forth among candidates, or the horse race.
- Seven of the ten sites offered background links to candidates’ policy positions. Four years ago, only half the sites studied contained such links.
- Interactivity is still not a big component of online political front pages. Four of the 10 sites studied offered no interactivity at all, and those that did offered less of it than four years ago.
- The number of links to external web sites also has diminished. Seven of the ten sites studied offered no links to other sites or to other news organizations.
- Sites are turning more this year to “customizable” information, allowing users to manipulate data by matching themselves to a candidate or searching information about a particular state.
The sites studied included the political front pages and lead stories of the eight most popular web sites that carry news, according to data from Nielsen//NetRatings: ABC, AOL, CNN, MSNBC, New York Times, USA Today, Washington Post, and Yahoo. Six of these were sites studied four years ago. Two (USA Today and ABC) were new to the list of the top eight sites.
In addition, the study included two prominent political web sites not among the top eight in traffic, but which we studied four years ago and are considered major sites in the online world of opinion journalism–National Review Online and Salon.2
In 2000, most sites had one political page. This year, several of the sites have both a politics page and an election or campaign page. For this study, we examined the campaign or election page if a site contained one, since this was usually the page dedicated to the election and most likely to offer voters the full range of links and materials on understanding the candidates. The politics page was more likely to cover breaking news and political events beyond the campaign.
Mirroring the earlier study in 2000, the 2004 study examined seven days in the heat of the primary season. It studied five days following the Iowa caucuses (January 20 to 24), and the two days following New Hampshire (January 28 and 29). There were two elements studied on each web site, the political or election front pages and the lead story on the page.
1. “Cable and Internet Loom Large in Fragmented Political News Universe,” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, January 11, 2004; “comScore Media Metrix Announced Top U.S. Internet Property Rankings for September 2003,” comScore press release, October 21, 2003.
2. Four years ago, there were two separate lists in the ratings of web sites, one for portals and another for news sites. Today, Nielsen has only a single list for web rankings, and several of the portals are gone. Those include Pathfinder/Time Inc., Go Network (owned by Disney and which got news from ABC), Microsoft’s MSN portal and Netscape (of the AOL Network).