The study was designed, during the last election, to look at political news web sites during the heat of the primary contests. Thus it may come as no surprise that when looking at lead stories, the focus was on things like horse race, endorsements, staffing and tactical maneuvers, not on policy, record or biography.
In all, 80% of stories were largely political in topic rather than revealing of the candidates character, record or positions. Four years ago, during a roughly similar period, the study found a slightly higher percentage of political topics in lead stories (85%).
In contrast, only 2% of lead stories (just 3 out of the 138 studied) were largely about what the candidates were like as people (their record, personality, management style, biography).
And only 4% of stories were about their positions on issues, their proposals or where they were promising to take the country.
If these matters are to be found on the Internet, it is not what these campaign sites are leading with. In reading these stories, the emphasis on such inside matters was relentless, filling paragraph after paragraph of copy.
Indeed, many of the stories have a kind of partial or rushed quality, something slightly less substantial than the morning newspaper or an evening news package. It is more of a mid-day update of the moment.
The most popular single topic of lead stories-political or otherwise–was looking forward to the battle ahead (19% of stories compared with 28% in 2000), examining how this or that might affect a given candidates chances in the coming contests. The next most popular topic was assessing candidate performance on the stump (16% of stories), though this number was influenced by attention to Howard Dean's post Iowa concession speech, dubbed, among other things, the "I Have A Scream" speech.
Four years ago, tactical maneuvering was a much larger topic (21% of stories). This year it made up 7% of the stories examined.
Beyond the nominal topic of lead stories, the study also examined how those topics were treated-or framed. A story about someone's policies could be framed in how that might make them vulnerable to attack. A story about tactical maneuvering or campaign staff might focus on what it says about a candidate's leadership ability or judgment.
To a degree even greater than four years ago, lead stories on the Internet tended to be framed as straight news accounts-the use of the inverted pyramid (who, what, when, where, how and why). This is a typical way to build a story when a reporter doesn't have any particular theme or point they are trying to pursue, but rather are trying to give an account of the latest events.
Many stories fell into this category because they contained a little bit of everything rather than trying to capture in any particularly coherent way the day's events. The style of MSNBC helps illustrate this. The site tends to simply add to a wire story account as the day goes on, getting longer and longer over time.
Fully 46% of lead stories studied were framed as straight news accounts (the exact same percentage as four years earlier).
When reporters did build a story around a theme, the most popular one was the campaign as horse race (19%) followed by a focus on the tactics and strategies of the campaigns (11%). Candidates' leadership ability came next (9%), and discussion of their behavior without any direct discussion of what it might imply about their leadership or judgment made up 7% of stories.
Contrary to the idea that the Internet is a bastion of opinionated argument and unsubstantiated innuendo, the sourcing on these sites was strong-even stronger than we found four years earlier. More than a third of the lead stories (38%) cited seven or more sources. That is almost twice as many as we found in 2000 (21% had such sourcing then).
What's more, more than half of all lead stories (61%) cited at least five sources (compared with 54% in 2000).
Only 6% of stories cited no sources at all, and that was consistent across the sites studied.
Anonymous sourcing was also minimal. Only 4% of the lead stories studied led with an anonymous source.
As was true in 2000, the most common first source was a candidate. Nearly six-in-ten stories (59%) offered one of the candidates as the first source (up from about half in 2000).
The next most common first source cited in lead stories was a poll (12%), something that might depress some voters, like those who made headlines for booing ABC anchorman Ted Koppel for asking about polls in a debate in New Hampshire this campaign season.
What triggered the lead stories online? Here we found substantial differences from our study four years earlier.
In the 2000 campaign, decisions by journalists, rather than external events, were a major force in initiating lead stories. A news organization might decide to do a profile or to examine an ad strategy. Journalists triggered 41% of stories, even more than candidates' speeches (39%).
This year, journalist-driven stories made up half that number (21% of lead stories). A great many more of the lead stories were initiated by things the candidates themselves said or did (41%) of stories, and by election results (26%). Four years ago, only 8% of the stories were triggered by election results.
The differences between the campaign may be a function of the fact that there are so many candidates this year, or that the Iowa and even New Hampshire results caught many journalists off guard.
How often are lead stories updated or changed on the web? Four years ago the study downloaded the web four times a day and found significant updating throughout the day. This year we examined each web site twice a day. This makes comparisons with four years ago impossible.
Not surprisingly, we found that most 5 p.m. downloads featured a different lead story than at 9 a.m.-though perhaps to a lesser degree than one might expect. The majority, 54% of the stories were completely new. Another 4% were updates of what had led the site eight hours earlier.
The sites that tended to keep the same lead story all day were ABC, New York Times, Salon, and the National Review Online.
Four years ago, in four downloads a day, we found 45% of stories were completely new, 10% were updated and another 45% were the same story repeated.