2.1 Introduction
2.2 Putting ‘information' in rational perspective
2.3 Why the Internet matters to political journalism
2.4 Individuals online: usage and impacts
2.5 Groups online: usage and impacts
2.6 Politicians online: usage and impacts
2.7 Media online: usage and impacts
2.8 ‘Ya say ya wanna a revolution?'
2.9 Further study

Submitted by:
A.M. Burton

Submitted to:
School of Journalism and Communication, Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada),

in part completion of the requirements for the

Master of Journalism

September 2000

:: Research Base



2.3  Why the Internet matters to political journalism

Any student of journalism is familiar with the old maxim - the media don't tell us what to think, they just tell us what to think about. Traditionally, and for obvious reasons including time and space constraints, the mass media have not been an unlimited well of information. Rather, headline stories are chosen by editors and reporters, influenced by legislators, and with fairly limited public input.

Through their day-by-day selection and display of the news, the editors of our newspapers and the news directors of our television stations exert a powerful influence on public attention to the issues, problems, and opportunities that confront each community. Over time, the priorities reflected in the patterns of news coverage become to a considerable degree the priorities of the public agenda. This influence of the news agenda on the focus of public opinion is called the agenda-setting role of mass communication.1

Agenda-setting is about imparting the facts about issues, and is not about ascribing value judgements. In a liberal democracy, it is assumed the news agenda is not set consciously or deliberately, but inadvertently as reporters and editors respond to the major events of the day.

While the number of pages in a newspaper and length of a television newscast are clearly limited, it must be recognized that the capacity of the public agenda is also limited. Only a few issues can command significant attention among a significant number of rational, preference-maximizing voters at one time. Therefore, when individuals are polled on what they consider the main issues of the day, consensus generally emerges on those few issues that are perceived to most immediately impact the preference-maximizing potential of individuals within the community.2

If an issue does not resonate with [individual members of] the public, it will not appear on the public agenda regardless of its prominence on the media agenda. ... The public and the news media are joint participants on the agenda-setting process.3

The traditional news media, then, fulfill an important function in consolidating a state (national, provincial, local) community by delineating a common discussion space for sharing political information on issues relevant to the groups within a community. Given the recognized importance of this function, the implications of its alteration or absence are important to consider.

Can the Internet support group consensus building as the traditional media are relied on to do? That depends on the audience. To consider this question is to consider the nature of groups, or communities. Falk's (1998) discussion of 'robust' and 'ephemeral' communities is useful in this regard.

Falk suggests the Internet is not simply a data space, but rather is both an environment and a mode of social interaction. Finding information of personal interest on the Internet, in many cases, is a social experience that rests on information sharing (on or offline) between individual users.4

A social network binds together the nodes of the Web. 'The Web' is thus embedded in both a technological Web (the protocols, data lines, modems, computer hubs, and computer terminals that constitute the Internet) and a Web of social connections that construct and shape its meaning, use, and hence its usefulness.5

The audience created by the development and spread of national print media was instrumental in defining national community. Drawing on an accessible and common source of information, people within national borders could imagine a collective history, a shared present and, in turn, a single national community. Falk joins McCombs in emphasizing that forms of shared information are vital consolidating features of modern communities, and questions whether the Internet will be used effectively for community building as the traditional mass media has been used.

'Robust communities,' those in which members have a sense of interrelatedness, shared experience and common ideals, are akin to the traditional national community. Members believe belonging will lead to success and therefore invest personal resources, believe the community to be stable, growing, supportive and effective. In contrast, 'ephemeral communities' are unstable and transitory, with a rapidly changing population, chaotic interaction, and low expectation of common ideals.6

Falk suggests that, for there to be robust communities that communicate via the Internet, more meaningful modes of interaction than are currently used online are required, ones that reproduce the social qualities of 'real life' communities.7

So at a time when national community is eroding, if we seek to find the basis on which equally robust new community can be forged, we need to look for not only the emerging technological basis but also for the social basis for these new forms.8

In terms of politics, emerging social movements, such as pro-life and pro-choice campaigners, taxpayers, and environmental activists, represent networks of local social interaction that often extend to a national or global scale. These communities demonstrate how constructing robust new Internet communities will require tapping into the synergies of social organizations and new developments in communication technology.9

The central point is that a robust community cannot be built out of technology alone. It must retain community purpose to ensure its durability. Community will only be strengthened when its activities, and the technology that supports them, can be seen to be enhancing its ability to achieve its purpose.10

The Internet, therefore, may have the potential to enhance and expand upon the community building role of traditional media, but there is no certainty it will be used to such an end.

According to Selnow (1998), while in theory there can never be too much information, overabundance doesn't necessarily translate into better educated voters who make better choices at the ballot box. Selnow argues that the critical question is not how much information voters may have, but how wisely they will express themselves in public dialogue and electoral outcome.

Thomas Jefferson, the most celebrated early defender of a free press and a chief proponent of the First Amendment, knew that the right to publish information was not enough. He felt that putting the information on the street was only half of it; getting people to use it was the other half.11

As San Francisco Chronicle journalist Vlae Kershner recently commented about online political discussion stemming from the Republican National Convention, "one of the Internet's biggest disappointments is that while it is supposed to empower individuals to discuss issues seriously, much of the discussion that really occurs is illiterate ranting."12

By catering to increasingly narrow audiences, new information technologies such as the Internet may ultimately serve to fragment the traditional news audience, with potentially bleak repercussions for the community building model of the traditional news media.

To the extent that mass media act as a conserving force in democratic societies by providing citizens with shared collective experiences, or by ritually representing a society to itself, the potential that the Web might become the primary news medium for even a modest segment of the population casts a shadow over the long-term health of the body politic.13

To better understand the implications of this, the following pages consider how individuals, interest groups, political actors and the media use the Internet.

Foot Notes

1.     McCombs, 1997, p. 433.
2.     McCombs, 1997, p. 434.
3.     McCombs, 1997, p. 437.
4.     Falk, 1998, p. 286.
5.     Falk, 1998, p. 286.
6.     Falk, 1998, p. 289.
7.     Falk, 1998, p. 290.
8.     Falk, 1998, p. 291.
9.     Falk, 1998, p. 291-292.
10.   Falk, 1998, p. 292.
11.   Selnow, 1998, p. 146.
12.   Kershner, San Francisco Chronicle, August 2, 2000.
13.   Althaus and Tewksbury, 2000, p. 23.

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