McCain, Obama and a Polarized Online Media


We know that any analysis of the media coverage politicians receive invariably raises the question of bias. The unapologetically liberal media is a favorite talking point of the right, while Democrats loudly deride outlets such as the Drudge Report and the right-wing talk radio contingent.

It’s a polarized world out there. Peering into how that translates into the online arena, metrics firm Hitwise conducted a clickstream analysis examining which news outlets are referring traffic to the two presidential candidates’ Web sites.

Tracking the data from the primaries onward, Hitwise found that Barack Obama’s Web site continues to receive far more referrals from media sites than opponent John McCain, but that McCain has been closing the gap since it became clear that Obama had defeated Hillary Clinton.

Last week, Obama’s Web site saw two and a half times more visitors than McCain’s, Hitwise said. That was down, however, from Obama’s 4-to-1 edge two weeks ago.

Fitting with the catch-up pattern, 82 percent of the traffic to McCain’s site last week was from first-time visitors, compared with 59 percent for Obama.

Hitwise analyst Heather Hopkins suggested
“Perhaps the initial difference in traffic was a result of the Democratic race, rather than an inherent bias.”

“As the race has shifted to focus on Obama versus McCain, McCain has begun to receive a larger share of traffic from news and media sites but still far below that of Obama,” she said.

Hopkins’ conclusion is consistent with a recent analysis from data services provider LexisNexis, which found that while Obama enjoys a favored position in terms of the quantity of coverage, a broad-brush look at the media landscape does not betray a significant bias.

One explanation for the disparity in volume is that Obama’s candidacy, as something of an historical anomaly, might be expected to garner more media attention.

As to the question of bias, LexisNexis applied a “sentiment algorithm” that identified various phrasings it used to classify a news items as “positive,” “neutral” or “negative” in their tone toward a candidate. It concluded that McCain and Obama were treated roughly equally by the mainstream media.

Since Hitwise’s clickstream analysis centered on referring links to the candidates’ sites, it did not try to peer into the journalist’s bias, but the referring sources were revealing.

Of the two candidates’ top 10 lists of referring news and media sites, there is only one site that appears on both: Yahoo News.

“This suggests that the divide in America is as deep as ever,” Hopkins said. “With blues and reds receiving their news from such different sources, it is difficult to imagine that divide decreasing.”

Consider the headlines of the top stories on last night’s speech from Sarah Palin, McCain’s controversial vice-presidential nominee, on each candidate’s top referring site.

World Net Daily: “A Star Is Born: The country ‘fell in love with Sarah Palin tonight.'”

CNN: “Hometown Loves ‘Hockey Mom’ VP Nom.”

[cob:Special_Report]So what’s waiting for the politically inquisitive visitors navigating to the McCain and Obama sites? A poor user experience, according to research firm Forrester.

Forrester recently applied a pared-down version of its Web site review methodology to the two sites, and concluded that their usability is less than sterling.

Looking at things like whether the most important content is given prominent placement, text is legible and easy to read, the menus are clear and the privacy and security policies clearly stated, both sites received poor marks. The only categories in which McCain’s site earned a passing grade were its clear, intuitive menus and legible text. Obama’s site failed in every category but the measure of how easy it is to scan the text and layout.

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