A primer on cyber-political coverage

Sometimes it's nice to turn the looking glass around and ask not where the campaign stands on the issues, but where one of the biggest of issues of the day stands on the campaign.

We're speaking here of the Internet - capital "I," according to my Bill Gates-powered spell checker. That great boundaryless global discussion room. That Jeffersonian leveler that puts the big media, the small media, and the lunatic fringe a click away from one another.

Besides sheer number growth - making it possible to scream at 100 people in a chat room as opposed to only 20 - it has changed in more substantial ways in the past four years. It has become, in some ways, the educational tool we once envisioned television would be.

Its theoretically inexhaustible space has made libraries full of statistics and figures available to those willing to do the work. Its interest in providing free information has made it possible to read basically any newspaper anywhere there is a computer with a modem.

But like any tool, the design isn't as important as how it's used. And since we are in a lull in what's shaping up to be a knock-down, drag-out fight between two men who are positive they want to be president and less sure why, it may be time to ask how we can best use our cyber-Frankenstein to help us choose.

Earlier this year, the Washington-based Committee of Concerned Journalists released a report on the Internet, which I worked on, that showed there was reason for optimism in the public's embrace of the Web.

And a recent survey by the New York-based Pew Center for the People and the Press found that 54 percent of people now go online compared with 21 percent in 1996. The group studied six days of news coverage on some well-known Web sites in the heart of the primary season and found that, Matt Drudge aside, much of the news on the Web is reliable and well-sourced. However, much of the coverage on the net doesn't even come close to living up to its promise of providing a wide variety of news and unfiltered information.

Herewith, a primer.

It's hard to know where to begin when looking at something as unwieldy as the Internet, so let's start where a lot of Web-heads start - the most popular "portal" Web sites, like Yahoo.com, Netscape.com, AOL.com, Disney's Go.com, and Microsoft's MSN.com.

These are the Web pages people often "open" to when they begin browsing the Internet, and despite the fact that they all fall into the same category, they vary wildly in the amount and type of news - political and otherwise - they provide. These can basically be set into two groups.

Yahoo.com, Netscape.com, and AOL.com are what might be called wire-service wannabes. They all basically get their news from the same place, The Associated Press and Reuters wire services. This creates problems for those checking in on the political news from time to time.

The AP and Reuters are constantly cranking out stories, which are all deposited in a queue that subscribing papers, like the Monitor, have the right to peruse and use. What happens with the Web sites is that every hour or so they come by and take the top three or four political headlines and throw them on their page.

The problem with this strategy is that it makes what you learn very much a hit-or-miss proposition. Take the day John McCain blasted the Christian Coalition in Virginia - unquestionably a huge story. Neither AOL nor Netscape mentioned this story in their top political headlines.

Reuters and AP are fine news services, but they are meant to be edited, and this is something the Web sites rarely seem to do.

The better bets are the other two "portals": Go.com and MSN.com. Both are part of larger media empires that include news operations - ABC News and Slate.com respectively - and both benefit hugely from the connection.

Go.com's political news page offers a large selection of stories - the vast majority of which, 92 percent, were written by ABC staff. The pieces go beyond simple straight news to provide context - as well as some ABC broadcast stories.

And say what you will about Bill Gates, MSN.com's political news which, "powered by" the Internet magazine Slate, gives those who want to know what's going on politically a variety of tools. The page looks for the top political stories in papers around the country and features little gimmicks like a search engine that let's you enter your Zip Code and see how much your neighbors have contributed and to whom.

A scary thought? Maybe. But not a bad way to kill a slow afternoon at work.

*Monday: a look at some popular strictly news sites.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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