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



As stated in the introduction to this Master's research project, there is little doubt that the Internet will play a significant role in the upcoming Canadian federal election. This will be Canada's inaugural Internet election.

In attempting to locate new communication technologies in a political framework, it is useful to revisit the logic of Downs' theory of political information. The amount of scarce resources voters invest in gathering political information is determined by three factors: the value to the individual of making a correct decision, the relevance of the information to the decision at hand; and, the cost of the data.

While the volume of data, including political information is expanding exponentially, agenda-setting theory reminds us that the amount of room on the public agenda is limited.

Further, politicians, the primary sources of political information have little incentive to eschew the agenda setting role of the traditional media. They at once exercise a tremendous amount of control over political information, and at the same time are faced with the political imperative of uniting a critical mass of voters around a handful of central issues.

The traditional media, meanwhile post copious amounts of content online and are exploring, if not yet maximizing, the potential of the Internet all the while driven by business, nor democratic imperatives. The traditional media are also increasingly drawn to reporting on online activity. So far, however, there have been no major challenges to the media status quo by online competitors doing journalism in any significantly different manner.

As Davis (1999) suggests, rather than acting as a revolutionary tool, rearranging political power and instigating direct democracy, the Internet is more likely to become dominated by the same actors in American politics who currently utilize other mediums. Further, as Sparrow (1999) suggests, technology cannot on its own re-excite citizens to the potential of the political process.

With the recent announcement that Canadian television giant CanWest Global wants to purchase a majority share of the Hollinger Inc. media holdings, and the even more recent announcement that BCE Enterprises wants to take over the venerable Canadian media empire Thompson Corp., including television interests such as Report on Business TV and their newspaper flagship The Globe and Mail, it seems unlikely that new media technologies are destined to empower anyone other than existing media moguls.

But if the antonym of revolution is the status quo, a cursory survey of developments in new media and Internet technology indicate that too is unlikely.

Individual voters may not be on the cusp of becoming masters of political information, drawing on online resources to educate themselves to participate in the democratic process as never before. However, the potential to increase their capacity to do so is undeniably enhanced by the unique features of the Internet and electronic mail.

However, both the traditional media and the new Internet news portals have significant ground to cover before they can truly claim to offer an online alternative to the status quo. As the PoliticsWatch study of online news coverage during the Canadian Alliance leadership race clearly demonstrates, none of the existing online media currently maximize the potential of the Internet.

Information gathering costs remain high for individual voters because most online news providers rely on a single source for their content. Whether that source is the Canadian Press news wire or one of the other traditional media, the result is the same: little value is added to the news product by being posted on the Internet. And, as noted above, the ownership structures in the Canadian media industry do not appear to be diversifying, but rather to be conglomerating.

In addition, audio and video are not yet married with text based reporting to produce more complete coverage online. Basic visual images such as photographs are seriously lacking in online political news. And, perhaps most significantly, individual news consumers are only slightly more likely to have the opportunity to express what think or feel about the issues of the day online as they are in the traditional media.

One thing is certain, as the potential uses of new communication technologies are explored and expanded upon citizens will have an unparalleled opportunity to observe and participate in the genesis of the new media. That in part, is what has inspired PoliticsWatch, the desire to be part of something new, something exciting that touches on so many important facets of society.

As Canada's Political Portalä , PoliticsWatch is positioned at the forefront of Canadian online political news, offering meta-journalism to political news consumers and, resources permitting, original political news from a new voice and perspective. In offering a compendium of online voter resources, PoliticsWatch will also eventually seek to assist voters to use online political information to educate themselves about the issues of the day and explore ways to make their own views count.

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