Slate and the Industry Standard join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.
Last week, an organization called the Committee of Concerned Journalists published a report billed as the "first-ever study of coverage of the presidential election online." Unfortunately, it probably won't be the last. While Internet coverage of the campaign is a fine topic for journalistic navel-gazing, the study is a good illustration of the failings of the quantitative model dear to the hearts of media institutes. Lacking any clear sense of what it thinks Web campaign journalism ought to be, the study tallies up irrelevant statistics, criticizes Web journalism for a multitude of insignificant sins, and praises it for a host of nonexistent virtues.
First, the conclusions: Based on its examination of 12 sites on six selected news days earlier this year, the Concerned Journalists judge that many of the Web sites and portals covering the campaign are doing a thin, unoriginal job. According to the study, the dirty little secret of much of the Internet is "wire copy from Reuters, a conventional 149 year-old British wire service." One-quarter of the sites studied do no original reporting of their own. All the sites, in the opinion of the examiners, offer insufficient "substance." Most of the sites also make inadequate use of the interactive potential of the medium. On the bright side, the study finds that "lead stories were well sourced" and that the Web is not the bastion of "unsubstantiated rumor and innuendo" that it has a reputation for being. It also praises several sites for their liveliness.
Let me disclaim a conflict of interest. One of the sites under review is the MSN/Slate Politics page, which the report is largely positive about (as it is about Salon's Campaign 2000 page, National Review Online, the New York Times' online politics page, washingtonpost.com's On Politics and the CNN-Time AllPolitics page). But even that roster points to the confusion at the heart of the study. The Concerned Journalists include in their sample three entirely different kinds of sites—the Web sites of daily newspapers such as the Times, Web-based magazines such as Salon, and political portals such as CNN's AllPolitics. It then evaluates these disparate sites according to the same arbitrary criteria, such as how many interactive features they provide, how much original reporting they do, how frequently they refresh their stories, and how many named sources they use. Not surprisingly, the portals score poorly on original reporting, the magazines score poorly on frequent refreshing, and the newspapers don't include as many interactive features.
The problem here isn't just comparing apples and oranges. It is comparing apples, oranges, and bananas and criticizing each for not tasting like all three simultaneously. The study might usefully have pointed out that the various Web sites see themselves as having different missions. Some, such as Slate, Salon, and NationalReview.com practice Webby variations on familiar kinds of political journalism. Others, such as AOL's "Latest Politics" page and the Yahoo! "Politics Headlines" page, regard themselves as delivery systems for information reported by others. It makes no more sense to criticize the latter for not having their own original reporting than it would to criticize Road & Track for not having more stories about boats.
Terms like "original reporting," "interactive elements," and "depth of coverage" take on quasi-religious overtones for regular readers of the Columbia Journalism Review. But they are not necessarily primary goals, or even intrinsically good things, to the editors of the sites under consideration. I share the report's opinion that the AOL political portal is embarrassingly bad. But the problem isn't the lack of an AOL reporter on the Bush campaign plane. AOL has no experience with news reporting, which is part of the reason it bought Time and CNN. And as pathetic as its campaign page is, AOL is still doing something useful by providing fresh-from-the-oven copy from Reuters, which for 147 years or so civilians couldn't get. And why do the authors of the study assume that including 20 or more stories a day means having a better campaign Web site? Few political junkies are hooked badly enough to want to read that much news every day. The point of political newsportals is to select and aggregate the most interesting stories.
Another problem with the study is the fallacy of the self-selecting sample. It's easy to praise Web sites that don't use unsourced rumors when you don't consider sites that do, such as the Drudge Report and Skeleton Closet. The conclusion is a tautology: If you don't go to unreliable sources, you won't find unreliable information. Likewise, the time frame of the study implies, and achieves, a certain result in terms of "substance." Researchers look at Web sites on six big news days at the height of the primary season and conclude that they don't run many in-depth policy analyses. But the evidence doesn't demonstrate that. It merely suggests that news organizations don't run many detailed policy stories at the high points of a horse race. The complaint mainly reflects the goo-goo assumption that if you haven't bored your readers into a stupor, you probably haven't done your job.
What can we say about campaign coverage on the Web if we drop the pretense of performing social science? My chief observations would be that the Web has afforded citizens easy access to vastly more detailed and tailored information; that it has created a 24-hour news cycle, which is a bit exhausting for all involved; that it is eroding, to some extent, the distinction between professional political journalists and amateurs; that it has provided an extraordinary amount of journalistic freedom and flexibility to some writers; and that the tone of the Web has had some influence on the tone and style of traditional journalism. But mainly I'd say that Internet political coverage, like Web journalism generally, is a work in progress. Nobody knows for certain what it will be, nor will it be any one thing. It bears examining. But this journalist, for one, isn't concerned.