::  


SECTION 2

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

SECTION 2

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 same thing.5

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 that:

... 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 be indistinguishable.

"... 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


Foot Notes

1.     http://www.freedomchannel.com/todays/041700white.cfm
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.
10.   http://slate.msn.com/netelection/entries/00-06-16_84615.asp
11.   Sparrow, 1999, p.198.
12.   Dahlgren, 1996, p. 71.
13.   Williams, 1998, p. 31.
14.   Williams, 1998, p. 37.
15.    http://thestandard.net/article/article_print/1,1153,17357,00.html

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