DOES THE REVOLUTION BEGIN HERE?
HOW THE INTERNET MAY (OR MAY NOT) CHANGE POLITICAL COMMUNICATION
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
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
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
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.
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
13. Althaus and Tewksbury, 2000, p. 23.