WASHINGTON -- A study on e-politics discounts as unfounded worries that the Internet is a "vast bastion of unsubstantiated rumor and innuendo." One-quarter of Americans report getting at least some campaign information online.
Shortcomings do exist among political news Web sites, the study released Sunday by the Committee of Concerned Journalists found. Not all are updated continuously. Some are hard to find. Not all offer links to related Internet sites, including ones that offer unfiltered information such as transcripts of politicians' speeches, for instance, as opposed to reporters' stories about them.
Information about this year's presidential campaign was not as solid on the Internet's most popular sites for political news as in traditional newspapers, said the study, which monitored two national newspapers and 12 Internet sites on six days of the primary season between late February and Super Tuesday, March 7. The study did find that top political stories found on Internet sites were well-sourced.
"Contrary to the idea that the net is full of opinionated argument or unsubstantiated innuendo, campaign sourcing on the Internet was strong," the study said. "More than one in five of all lead stories had more than seven sources. And overall, more than half had at least five sources."
Almost one-quarter of citizens say they now get some election information from the Internet, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported in a survey released in February. And in a study last month, the Annenberg Public Policy Center reported that more Americans were surfing the Internet for political news at a time when the three major television network newscasts averaged just 36 seconds a night about presidential candidates.
Consumers are just finding out what kind of political information they can get from the Internet, said Tom Rosenstiel, vice chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists and director of its Project for Excellence in Journalism. Some World Wide Web sites offer all the content of a good newspaper plus other political information, such as texts of speeches, biographies of candidates and video of debates, he said. Other sites are managed by people with little news judgment and are updated frequently but for no particular reason, Rosenstiel said.
"I think that it's pretty clear that the potential of the Internet has not been fully tapped," Rosenstiel said Sunday. "The sites that are mixing video, audio, newspaper and wire service stories and making it easy to find. They're the ones that are tapping the potential of the Web."
-- Political news was plentiful as two-thirds of all the "front pages" of the Web sites had at least 16 stories related to the campaign. Yet substance was hard to find. Only 2 percent of the lead stories dealt with the candidates' policy positions, their records or core beliefs.
-- Stories are frequently updated, but updates do not always provide a better understanding of the story being reported. On Feb. 28, a computer user surfing America Online News would have found nothing in the lead story on what was perhaps the biggest political news of the day: Sen. John McCain, then a Republican presidential candidate, deriding Pat Robertson as an "agent of intolerance" in Virginia Beach, Va., home of Robertson's Christian Coalition.
-- Some sites are hard to find. Netscape users, for instance, must first "click on a lead story and then wind his or her way through to the political news page," the study said. "CNN, in contrast, required only one click on the `politics' bar in the upper left corner."