DOES THE REVOLUTION BEGIN HERE?
HOW THE INTERNET MAY (OR MAY NOT) CHANGE POLITICAL COMMUNICATION
2.7 Media online: use and impacts
Canadian traditional news media have seized upon the Internet in
a variety of ways. As discussed in the previous section, at least
anecdotally, what is on the Internet increasingly qualifies as news,
with online content triggering more and more political news stories.
The Internet is also altering how traditional print media journalists
do their job. Notably, reporters for Canada's The Globe and
Mail recently began filing stories in 'real-time' on the newspaper's
Web site. As well, one of the unique features of the Internet, embedded
hyperlinks to related information, has led to expanded depth and
breadth of coverage of issues in some cases. Anyone with a computer
and modem can now access a far greater variety of traditional media
content online from around the world.
In the United States, currently in campaign mode for the 2000 presidential
election, some news organizations have made politics and the Internet
a whole new beat. Ben White, recently assigned by The Washington
Post to cover the Internet and politics full time, says the
traditional media must pay attention to the Internet "because
we're starting to see some significant political impact from the
Internet, particularly what John McCain was able to accomplish ..."1
While primarily used by politicians as an advertising
tool, a study by Hall (1997) of the 1996 presidential campaign found
that American news organizations "made civic-minded and innovative
use of the Web to enhance their role as forums for information and
opinion."2 The contrast illustrates the larger debate
over the future role of the Internet in the democratic process.
Hall suggests the difference between the strategies of politicians
versus news organizations "suggests the narrowest and broadest
possibilities for the Web's place in a democracy."3
In addition to offering the traditional fare of
news and opinion, media Web sites exploited the unique capabilities
of the Internet in 1996. The jointly run CNN-Time Web site, AllPolitics.com,
featured an interactive fictional election process driven by actual
campaign issues such as abortion, foreign policy and immigration,
highlighting the complexity of campaign politics. MSNBC published
a multimedia history of the elections since 1968; The Boston
Globe hosted a forum for voter commentary; and The New
York Times Web site featured a personal tax bill calculator
that allowed users to compare how their finances would fare under
the various candidates.4 Here in Canada, during the 1997
federal election the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. had a special section
devoted to the election on its Web site.
In many ways the melding of traditional and new
media is now so complete that Rash (1997) suggests it is a false
dichotomy to consider new and traditional media as separate entities.
The assumption that they are two different things,
that the nets are somehow fundamentally separate from the traditional
media, is wrong. In fact, the new and old media have become so
closely intertwined that in many ways they are aspects of the
Some see the growth of political information on
the Internet as a mixed blessing. Selnow cautions the effort to
acknowledge, if not cover, all sides equally or fairly in traditional
journalism is not necessarily expected or present in online journalism,
nor is the same consensus-building news diet.6 The loss
of these two critical features in an online environment renders
the information-seeking process for the individual voter potentially
much more demanding.
Selnow predicts the information glut facilitated
by the Internet will increase reliance on professional journalists
to give context and meaning to the news, thereby changing the role
of the journalist from chronicler to analyst. Voters, if they want
to, can track campaign events and election results themselves. They
will turn to journalists for interpretation and perspective, thus
redefining the skills required to be a journalist.7 Adopting
an optimistic view of the future of the Internet, Selnow suggests
... this new medium - content-rich and audience-strong
- has a good chance of breaking the iron grip of the central media.
It may weaken TV's control of the public agenda, loosen its stranglehold
on third-string candidates and philosophies, and impose an antidote
to the sometimes toxic form of political communication.8
While examples are admittedly rare, the Internet
is beginning to enable new voices to tell stories that might otherwise
never be heard, while the appetite for unspun, unedited, uncontrolled
political information is clear. Unconventional electronic media
sources, such as the Drudge Report in the United States,
have used the Internet to instantly circulate stories that traditional
news organizations decided not to publish (most notably, first rumours
of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair),9 signaling a nascent
online-only journalism industry. But, as Slate journalist
Thomas Goetz highlights, online publications have faced problems
in establishing their journalistic credentials. "Web coverage
is very different from what political campaigns are used to. It's
often caustic, unbridled, and intentionally nonconformist ... the
unchecked new agenda has made gonzo part of the story."10
However, Sparrow (1999) suggests that while new
technology such as the Internet and online information services
may impact traditional journalism by facilitating newsgathering
and story writing, a proliferation of new news sources would serve
to direct the audience back to traditional sources. Since the Internet
does not itself communicate the relative significance of information
or sort the thousands of pieces of political information available,
prioritization and selection of political information will remain
in the hands of respected news sources. Sparrow predicts only a
few equally respected online-only journalists or publications will
emerge as trusted political news sources.11
Adhering to a Downsian model, this outcome seems
plausible. While not denying the potential of the Internet as a
political medium, it avoids the false hopes of an "information
revolution," as will be discussed further in the next section.
Also plausible is the prediction that broader access
to information may in fact render the journalist redundant. As Dahlgren
(1996) suggests, "the emerging global media situation increasingly
puts journalism on par with other forms of 'information' as a commodity,"
resulting in the traditional journalist being replaced by newer,
"info-librarians" or "cyber-gophers," devoid
of the active, critical, and creative dimensions of journalism.12
Further, there is the troubling prediction that
the online environment may eliminate the constructs between journalism
and other more market-oriented forms of information sharing. According
to Williams (1998), "opinion, marketing, advertising, information
and news will weave together so seamlessly, in the online environment,
that the public will no longer be able to distinguish objective
reporting from promotional messages."13 In this
scenario, the distinction between clean and dirty information may
"... if a government agency ... gives an accurate,
independent account ... in a press release, why should the public
eschew that in favor of the reporter's account? ... Similarly,
if a commercial vendor can mix subtle advertising with 'information'
about a problem ... and present the package in a newslike format,
at what point does the public forget that it is watching an ad?14
In the political context, data collection companies
could gather information that would enable candidates to e-mail
personalized information, dressed up like journalism, to individual
voters containing targeted information they believe will secure
a vote. Individuals who came to rely on this type of propaganda
as their sole source of political information could end up voting
based on a news diet of dirty information.
One thing seems certain, as observers of the recent
Republican National Convention in Philadelphia will attest, online
political coverage is not likely to come without advertising. Commenting
on a live Webcast Sam Donaldson interview which was interrupted
for a commercial, The Industry Standard's Ronna Abramson
noted, "until now, commercial-free video footage was one minor
advantage the Net could claim over television. ABCNews.com is taking
giant leaps to change that."15
2. Hall, 1997, p. 97.
3. Hall, 1997, p. 99.
4. Hall, 1997, p. 101.
5. Rash, 1997, p. 118.
6. Selnow, 1998, p. 147-148.
7. Selnow, 1998, p. 170-172.
8. Selnow, 1998, p. 191.
9. Johnson, 2000, p. 11.
11. Sparrow, 1999, p.198.
12. Dahlgren, 1996, p. 71.
13. Williams, 1998, p. 31.
14. Williams, 1998, p. 37.