February 05, 2004

Politics, News & the 'Net

More and more influential people - opinion leaders in social science parlance - are relying on the Internet for news about politics. Unfortunately, political news web sites are giving these readers "less original reporting" and more horserace coverage than ever before.

In other words, at a time when the capacity of the news media to influence greater numbers of people is on the rise, the sophistication of news it is offering that audience is on the decline.

I am sure mathematicians have a term to describe that formula - exponential degeneration? - but I would say it appears that the electronic offerings of news organizations are regressing to be mirror images of their print or broadcast forms. Given the institutional inertia of traditional news media, especially print, this seems natural, but regrettable.

The finding about opinion leaders comes from a George Washington University study on Internet. "The study found that online political activists are nearly seven times more likely than the average citizen to influence their peers when it comes to telling them which politicians to support," the New York Times reported.

The survey of political web sites was done by the Project for Excellence in Journalism as a follow-up to a similar study done by the organization four years ago.

Here's the good:

"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."

And the bad:

"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."

And the ugly:

"Sites varied widely in style and content, and the organization was often confusing. Sometimes the richest sites were the hardest to navigate."

The study found "the content here is carefully sourced and documented" and consisting of primarily "traditional wire service and newspaper stories," but unfortunately it also found 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." More specifically:

"In all, 80% 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."

"In the end," the study concluded, "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."

Of course, it is no surprise that the content of most news web sites derives directly from the parent organization, as does their identity and personality. Original online reporting by traditional news media is rare, but it is changing - slowly.

Participatory journalism - blogging, interaction between news producer and news consumer and, increasingly, news maker - is growing and I suspect that when the Project for Excellence in Journalism does its study in 2008 web political coverage will look decidedly different.

Links
 Project for Excellence in Journalism: ePolitics 2004 A Study of the Presidential Campaign on the Internet
 New York Times Survey Finds 'Opinion Leaders' Logging On for Political News

Posted by Tim Porter at February 5, 2004 09:16 AM