IF THE UNSUBSTANTIAL sound bite is the shame of televised election coverage, then information overload is the parallel pitfall on the Internet. After spending one interminable day in October reviewing Web coverage of the presidential campaign, I can verify that the online universe is indeed infinite, and that politics, not pornography, seemed the most prolific theme. Stunned by thousands of news articles, background pieces, surveys, discussion forums, transcripts and commentary, this human brain nearly screamed for spoon-fed mush. Election sections on most of the major news sites were so enormous that a person couldn’t possibly process all the sections and subsections and sub-subsections. About 20 percent of the stuff seemed digestible; the rest was far more than the average visitor would care to chew. But that’s the nature of the Internet, isn’t it? Throw enough stuff at the wall, and most of it will be used by someone. Let folks pick and choose their news.
If nothing else, all the fodder provided a number of ready-made high school civics reports and fed the repurposing requirements of fellow reporters. And why not? Airtime and column inches don’t exist on the Internet. There’s no need to decide between an interview with a candidate’s grade school sweetheart, a 5,000-word analysis of his position on health care or a comparison of campaign platforms. You can do all of that and more. This is a good thing, isn’t it? Yes.
As long as an organization has the resources and vision to distinguish its core coverage from the ornaments that surround it. Along those lines, cheers to all of the major news sites for their efforts at live speech and debate coverage, solid election news and voting resources. Nearly every news organization with access to live video streamed it quite successfully during the debates and provided cataloged archives for future reference (abcNEWS.com even offered a stream in Spanish). Nearly live text transcripts were also available on most sites. The innovation award goes to Web White & Blue 2000 (www.webwhiteblue.org). Sponsored by the Markle Foundation, the project was a consortium of 17 major Internet sites and news organizations from AOL and Yahoo to MTV and MSNBC.
Each day the presidential candidates or their surrogates would respond to a question submitted by a visitor at one of the partner sites. The answers and rebuttals could come in any format and were unlimited in length. Not only did the Al Gore and George W. Bush campaigns respond regularly, but also the Reform Party’s Pat Buchanan, Libertarian Harry Browne, Natural Law candidate John Hagelin and the Constitution Party’s Howard Phillips. Only Ralph Nader declined to participate.
Contrast those home runs with the controversial morning-after polls that asked visitors to choose the winner of each televised debate. A full day after the third debate, abcNEWS.com’s poll showed more than 83,000 responses and MSNBC.com’s registered more than 52,000–a much larger sample size than those used by scientific pollsters. The trouble is that the online polls (to recall an old rant) can be terrifically inaccurate. Both surveys showed Bush as the victor with about 60 percent of the votes, and Gore in the upper 30s. Meanwhile the polls conducted by research firms like Gallup reported a dead heat.
The discrepancy was explained by two factors: Republicans outnumber Democrats on the Internet, and Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson mounted a preemptive survey-stuffing campaign, according to reports on abcNEWS.com and CNET. Both sites clearly noted that their surveys were not scientific. Still, presenting them in the context of news coverage could be misleading to viewers not aware of the differences between scientific polls meant to give an accurate snapshot of viewer response and random surveys. Less controversial was the commentary and pseudo-news, like the fact-checking features that were all the rage during the debates. The trend started with the Bush and Gore campaigns, which launched competing Web sites, then seeped into the mainstream media.
Washingtonpost.com’s On Politics section featured a segment called Debate Referee. Click on the referee and a commentary window pops up to cut through the debate rhetoric. The 2000 presidential election shows that the Internet has the potential to make debates and campaigns much more substantive. It also has the potential to paralyze, confuse and overwhelm. But the game is not really hit-or-miss anymore. As we learn what sticks and what doesn’t, we should anticipate a more digestible election spread the next time around.
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