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Voters Caught Up in Political Net

Americans are turning off their network news and skipping the daily newspaper, as a joint Pew Research Center for The People & The Press and Pew Internet & American Life Project survey identified the methods in which citizens learn about political candidates. As a sign of the changing times, there have been some dramatic declines in traditional forms of media, while there were some new media gains.

In the survey of more than 1,500 adults (where more than two-thirds were Internet users) conducted December 19, 2003 to January 4, 2004, the local TV news was shown to be the dominant source for information about the candidates and the campaign, but cable news and the Internet, along with some other sources, chipped away at the lead.

Pew Internet & American Life Project Director Lee Rainie explains the appeal of the Internet for political information: "As the Internet audience goes more mainstream, more people say that the 'convenience' of getting news online is a major factor for them. In other words, many are not going online to get special political info, or extra political info that they couldn't find on other media."

Rainie reflects on how the role of the Internet has changed over the past presidential elections: "This is quite unlike 1996 when the small online political audience was dominated by people who loved the Internet as a way to bypass the 'stranglehold' on political news by big media. The current population doesn't see it that way. They just like the fact that they can quickly scan political headlines online while they're doing other things on the Internet and they are happy to take the information provided by big wire services and big media companies."

While the local TV news still topped the list of political information sources, there was a 6 percentage point decline in the time between the two surveys, indicating that citizens may be more interested in the national political perspective during the presidential campaign season.

The networks took the biggest hit as 45 percent of those surveyed during the 2000 presidential campaign season indicated that they received information about the candidates from nightly network news, while only 35 percent reported the same for the latest survey.

Tying for biggest gain is a form of media that still has a comparatively small audience. While the Internet gained 4 percentage points since 2000's survey, the ubiquitous medium only registered 13 percent in 2004. Cable news networks scored the same point gain, propelling the medium to 38 percent, remaining right behind local TV news.

Other sources for political information have gained steam too. Radio, specifically talk radio and National Public Radio, each claimed another 2 percentage points, along with comedy TV shows.

Where Americans Regularly Learn About
the Candidates and the Campaign
Media 2000 2004 Change
Local TV news 48% 42% -6
Cable news networks 34% 38% +4
Nightly network news 45% 35% -10
Daily newspaper 40% 31% -9
TV news magazines 29% 25% -4
Morning TV shows 18% 20% +2
Talk radio 15% 17% +2
Cable political talk 14% 14% 0
National Public Radio 12% 14% +2
Sunday political TV 15% 13% -2
Internet 9% 13% +4
Public TV shows 12% 11% -1
Web sites of news orgs -- 11% --
News magazines 15% 10% -5
News pages of ISPs* -- 10% --
Late night TV shows 9% 9% 0
C-SPAN 9% 8% -1
Comedy TV shows 6% 8% +2
Religious radio 7% 5% -2
Online news magazines -- 2% --
* Internet service providers such as AOL and Yahoo TV.
The margin of error on the sample is 3.5 percentage points
for the Internet-user portion of the sample.
Source: Pew Research Center for The People & The Press and the Pew
Internet & American Life Project

According to Rainie, there may not be a race between media channels for much longer. "I'm not sure people will eventually see that the info they get from their print newspaper is materially different from the info they get from that same newspaper's Web site. Ditto for broadcast news organizations."

Rainie outlines the reasons why he believes the Internet will continue to rise relative to other forms of media, at least for a couple more elections. Rainie expects that more people will look to find political news and information online because an increasing number of sites will offer it, especially groups and organizations interested in politics. Also, significant portions of Internet users will become more comfortable participating in politics online, through e-mail, instant messaging, discussion groups, online petitions, and contributions.

Pew identified that 22 percent of all Internet users have gone online to get news or information about the 2004 campaign; 18 percent have sent or received e-mails about the candidates or campaigns either from their acquaintances or from groups or political organizations; and 7 percent have participated in online campaign activities such as contributing to discussion groups, signing petitions, or donating money.

More than one-third, or roughly 40 million Americans, have done some form of information gathering or more direct participation in politics via the Internet. Of this group, more than half (52 percent) have gone online to look for more information about candidates' positions on the issues, and 29 percent have used the Internet to find out about campaign organizations or activities in their communities.

Furthermore, 28 percent have visited Web sites set up by groups or organizations that promote candidates or political positions, and 25 percent have been to candidate or campaign Web sites. Evidence of online mobilization is displayed among the 13 percent that Pew recognized as participants in political discussion through blogs or chat groups.

Of the sites belonging to particular political parties or organizations or those devoted to expressing views on local or international political issues, the official White House Web site garnered the most visits for the week ending January 10, 2004. Contributing to the nearly 3000 percent spike in visits was President Bush's January 7 message about immigration, Hitwise found.

Political-Related Sites Ranked
by Visits for the week ending
January 10, 2004
Site Market Share
The White House 10.01%
Bush in 30 Seconds 6.37%
Free Republic 5.91%
Townhall.com 4.24%
MoveOn 3.06%
Dean for America 2.66%
Buzzflash.com 2.60%
Antiwar.com 2.38%
Petition Online 2.23%
Truth Out 1.93%
Source: Hitwise

Hitwise found that visitors to the sites in the political category were typically 35 to 44 year old (25 percent) males (56 percent), with household incomes above $75,000 annually (45 percent), who accessed the Internet from home (64 percent) in California, during a session that lasted more than 7 minutes.

Of the sites where Internet users are accessing political information, Rainie expects that voters will begin assessing credibility. "...it will be interesting to probe how people validate the information they receive — or decide what information they can trust. There are really interesting 'brand' questions about this (do I trust what's coming to me from all the National Review channels?), rather than the 'channel' questions about how people get their information (do I trust this because it's coming from the National Review's magazine as opposed to its Web site?)."