Presidential Web Sites as Sources of Information:
The Next Knowledge Gap in the Making?
Scholars recognize that knowledge represents power, particularly in
democracy. In modern society, the Internet offers a unique
opportunity for candidates to interact with the citizenry, potentially
increasing the transfer of political knowledge. This study examines the Web
sites of three top candidates in the 1996 Republican primary to gauge their
channel effectiveness -- the degree to which candidates take advantage of the
medium's unique capacity for immediacy, interactivity, sourcing and multimedia.
Attention is devoted to how effective communication on the Web might promote a
knowledge gap between those who have access to the Internet and those who do
[Presidential Web Sites As Sources of Information: The Next
Knowledge Gap in the Making?]
Presidential Web Sites as Sources of Information:
The Next Knowledge Gap in the Making?
Matthew M. Reavy [Contact Person]
Manship School of Mass Communication
Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge, LA 70803-7202
fax -- 504-388-2125
e-mail -- [log in to unmask]
David D. Perlmutter
Manship School of Mass Communication
Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge, LA 70803-7202
fax -- 504-388-2125
e-mail -- [log in to unmask]
[Submitted to Communication Policy and Technology of AEJMC, 1996]
"My sources are unreliable, but their information is
That knowledge is a form of potential power for individuals and
an influence on the division of power in society has long been recognized by
philosophers and statesmen. Aristotle was said to have claimed that those with
knowledge differ from those without "as much as the living from the dead"
(Laertius 1942 ed.). This is distinctly true in a participatory democracy,
where the citizens' knowledge of politics and politicians plays a crucial part
in determining the course of a nation's government. Those who possess knowledge
about their politicians tend adopt a more active role in determining which of
those politicians shall govern and which shall be governed (Rosen & Merritt
In modern society, the Internet offers a unique opening for
political candidates to interact with the citizenry, potentially increasing the
political knowledge of those who take advantage of this opportunity. Ideally,
such a situation creates a more enlightened electorate before which "tyranny and
oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of the
day" (Jefferson 1899a ed.). Perhaps the most salient ground for this
interaction lies on Web sites operated by the various candidates where an
electronic form of old fashioned retail politics may be practiced, in theory, if
not in fact: candidates speaking directly to votes, voters responding to
leaders, all without interpolation by other agents of media. However, this
presumes that universal access is inherent to such communication. In fact, even
in the United States only 13 percent of the population has access to the online
environment (Nielsen Media Research 1995). Moreover, the U.S. Internet
population differs systematically in its demographic and psychographic profile
from that of the nation as a whole, being significantly more homogenous in terms
of race, education, occupation, gender, age and income (Pitkow & Kehoe 1995).
Researchers have noted that different groups in society acquire,
retain and employ knowledge at different rates and with varying effectiveness.
This gap between the "information rich" and the "information poor" is and has
been a real problem (Price & Zaller 1990). But that political Web sites should
contribute to such a divide might not be so obvious. Indeed, some journalists
have argued that politicians' use of new media constitutes little more than
glitzy advertisement with little or no information content (Beckel 1996). On
the other hand, the Web has been cited as a great potential venue for political
discourse, potentially eclipsing all other media (Gates 1996). It is of
importance for communications researchers a) to ask how can the web's
characteristics as a medium fit into and expand traditional conceptions of mass
and interpersonal communication in politics, b) to assess the types, quantity,
quality and accessibility of information available on the WWW, and c) project
the future development and impact of political communication on the Web.
This study is a first step toward such a research program. We
examine the Web sites of three top candidates -- Bob Dole, Patrick Buchanan, and
Steve Forbes -- in the 1996 Republican presidential primary in an effort to
gauge the existence, abundance, form, and persuasive ability of their
information. Many aspects of the web sites, including their accuracy, content,
and quality of the message themselves, can be studied. However, we argue that a
first step is to evaluate the channel effectiveness -- the degree to which
candidates take advantage of the new medium's unique capabilities such as
immediacy, interactivity, sourcing and multimedia. To this end we analyzed
information at these sites, more than 1,600 printed pages of data, employing an
instrument that attempts to measure channel effectiveness within the framework
of traditional mass communication research. We also speculate on the latent
meanings inherent in Web political discourse and its possible effects on the
electorate, the democratic process and media representation of politics.
Knowledge -- as opposed to purely wealth and birth in the
countries of the old world -- has been considered one of the key elements of
social and political mobility in the United States (Watkinson 1990). Jefferson
argued that no nation can expect to be both "ignorant and free" (Jefferson 1899b
ed.), a sentiment echoed by James Madison who noted that "liberty and learning"
support each other like marble columns--if one were to fall, so would the other
(Madison 1910 ed.). Thus, the acquisition of knowledge is not merely a pastime
nor an outlet for excess energy, but rather essential to the continued existence
of a free society. It follows that, while all areas of knowledge may have some
relevance and importance to groups or individuals, political knowledge is the
keystone to participation in the democratic process and to mobility within the
Despite the crucial need for information in a democratic society,
certain groups perennially lack knowledge of important social and political
issues (Hyman & Sheatsley 1947). If information is indeed power, then
differences in knowledge contribute to the power of the elites over the majority
(Moore & Tumin 1949). Discrepancies in the quantity and quality of knowledge
held by groups might perpetuate differences in power within a society (Donohue,
Olien & Tichenor 1987; Olien, Donohue & Tichenor 1983). Such differential
absorption of knowledge has profound political implications in nations, like the
United States, that profess universal suffrage.
Within communication studies, the strongest model for noting and
predicting social differences in knowledge acquisition and retention is the
knowledge gap hypothesis of Tichenor, Donohue & Olien (1970). As originally
conceived, the theory posits that:
As the infusion of mass media information into a
social system increases, segments of the population with
socioeconomic status tend to acquire the information at a
than the lower status segments, so that the gap between these
nds to increase rather than decrease (Tichenor, Donohue &
In a recent review of 25 years of research on the knowledge gap
hypothesis, Finnegan and Viswanath noted that one of the theory's foremost
strengths is that it "predicts the impact of information flow on knowledge
equalization" (1995: 218).
The effects of information flow should be measurable and may
occur even when knowledge equalization is the goal of information diffusion.
One celebrated example of such a paradoxical knowledge gap involves the program
"Sesame Street," which had been targeted at children of lower economic status in
an effort to raise their educational level. The program was later found to
unintentionally accelerate the learning of higher status children, whose home
environments were more conducive to absorbing, retaining and applying the new
knowledge (Ball & Bognatz 1970; Katzman 1974). Some researchers believe this
problem illustrates that higher SES groups utilize more cultural and economic
resources to aid in assimilating new knowledge (Price & Zaller 1993; Gaziano
1984; Hyman, Wright & Reed 1975).
Since its inception, the knowledge gap hypothesis has undergone
many refinements and extensions (see Gaziano 1983; Viswanath & Finnegan 1995),
expanding from its original application in the analysis of newspaper readership
rates to use in examining any communication situation where individuals collect
information. Rather than a unilateral hypothesis, knowledge gap is a
"scientific research program" (cf. Latakos 1968, 1970) that is a "contribution
to the understanding and explanation of society" (Viswanath & Finnegan 1995:
218). It can thus be applied to new learning situations, new knowledge
campaigns and novel technologies -- such as the World Wide Web.
Many factors have been suggested as moderating, affecting or
intervening with differential rates of knowledge acquisition. These include the
social structure of a community, the geographic limits of a community, the
geographic limits of an issue, the impact of an issue on a community and the
flow of information--how much and how often information appears within a
community (Donohue, Tichenor & Olien 1975). One study (Delli Carpini, et al.
1994) found that citizens of Northern Virginia tended to be more informed about
national issues, but less informed about state issues than residents of
Richmond. The study suggested that differences were probably due to location--
the former group proximate to Washington, D.C. and the latter residing in the
The relevance of an issue and the motivations of groups have also
been suggested as interpolating knowledge gap rates (Ettema & Kline 1977).
Specifically, lower SES groups do not have the interest or perceived need to
acquire certain types of knowledge (see also Pan 1990; Tichenor, Donohue & Olien
1980; Wade & Schramm 1969). Research also suggests that a community's
"boundedness" -- not merely geographical, but also social, racial, religious or
ethnic -- may affect the presence and degree of a knowledge gap (Webber 1963).
For example, the knowledge gap between African Americans and other citizens is
relatively narrow on the issues of civil rights and crime, despite the former
group's generally lower SES (Viswanath, Kosicki, et al. 1993). The researchers
suggested that these issues have greater immediate relevance to the African
Motivation of the receiver has been noted as a possible
intervening variable in knowledge acquisition (Ettema & Kline 1977; Ettema et
al., 1983). Indeed, idiosyncratic characteristics of audiences and individuals
can ameliorate the knowledge gap (Sears & Freedman 1967; Dervin 1980).
Furthermore, certain types of knowledge in certain contexts may encounter a
"ceiling effect" whereby the have-nots can catch up with haves (Ettema & Kline
1977). Other researchers persist in arguing against wholly individual level
explanations for knowledge gaps and instead continue to cite differential SES
status as the major determinant in most situations (Gady & El Waylly 1985;
Studies have explored relationships between the structure of a
knowledge gap and the type of information being disseminated, the complexity of
that information and the channel employed for its transmission (Gaziano 1983;
Viswanath & Finnegan 1994). For example, topic-oriented studies have examined
the presence or diffusion of information on public affairs (Robinson & Levy
1986), the environment (Donohue et al. 1975), health (Viswanath 1990; Viswanath,
Finnegan & Kahn 1993; Zandpour & Fellow 1992), and agricultural innovation
(Hornik 1989). The complexity of information has been found to be a significant
factor in differential rates of diffusion. That is, gaps in awareness of simple
knowledge (Viswanath et al. 1994) have been found to be smaller than gaps in
complex data (Galloway 1977; Viswanath et al. 1994; Gaziano 1984) between low
and high SES groups.
In addition, studies have examined the effect on knowledge gaps
relative to the type of medium employed for information transmission, including
print media (McLoed & Pearse 1994, Price & Zaller 1993), television (Galloway
1977, Simmons and Garda 1982), and interpersonal discussion (Donohue et al.
1975; Griffin 1990; Hornik 1989). Several studies have also compared
television-derived knowledge to that acquired through newspapers (McLoed &
Pearse 1994, Lang & Lang 1984). Channel processing research has not produced a
clear set of effects, but the absorption of information seems to be equally
governed by SES status of the receivers and the level of exposure to the
information (Robinson 1972). For example, higher SES groups seem to use
newspaper derives knowledge for making citizenship decisions like voting more
than lower SES groups (Loges & Ball-Rokeach 1993).
New media types present a challenge for researchers exploring
knowledge gaps in contemporary society. Some have seen cable television,
videotext, and computers as agents of equalization, closing gaps between the
haves and the have-nots (Compaine 1986; Parker & Dunn 1972). However, such
optimistic views are premised on such technology being both universally
accessible and of interest to all groups. By contrast, it is precisely the
higher SES haves who are more likely to have the means and the interest required
to adopt and employ new technology (Berg 1984; Ettema 1984; Finnegan, Viswanath
& Loken 1988; Rogers 1976; Scherer 1989; Tomita, 1989).
Data available from the U.S. Census Bureau confirm unequal access
to technology among the citizenry. The statistics show that, while 9.6 percent
of white Americans had access to a computer in 1983, only 4.4 percent of African
Americans and 4.1 percent of Hispanic Americans had access to the machines.
Those numbers narrowed a few percentage points during the next decade as
computer technology began to spread among all groups, but the technology gap
remained conspicuous (See Figure 1). One can assume that minorities continue to
lag behind whites in their access to computer equipment.
Insert Figure 1 About Here
Even more striking is the disparate presence of whites and most
minorities on the Internet. A 1995 survey of Internet users reported that
nearly 86 percent of U.S. Internet respondents were white, while only 1.84
percent were Hispanic and 1.47 percent were African American (Pitkow & Kehoe
1995). These results clearly do not reflect the racial make-up of the United
States as a whole (See Figure 2). The study showed similar disparities with
regard to gender (67.5 percent male), age (( = 32.7) and income (( = $63,000).
Moreover, few members of traditionally blue collar occupations were found to use
the Internet. Not surprisingly, four traditionally white collar job categories
constitute approximately 90 percent of the Internet population: computers
(29.1), educational (30.9), professional (19.9) and management (10.2). We
believe it is no coincidence that these also comprise the upper SES groups noted
in the knowledge gap hypothesis.
Insert Figure 2 About Here
The Internet, particularly the World Wide Web, thus serves as a
new focus for debate about the dissemination of information in a democratic
society as well as the nature of future knowledge gaps. The Web undoubtedly has
the potential to act as a source of information for political decision-making,
but one wonders whether that potential is being realized. In short, do the Web
sites of political candidates offer real information, or are they simply virtual
burlesque-- a hollow imitation of political intelligence? This is especially of
concern, in light of findings that show that the Internet population differs
markedly from the U.S. population as a whole. Thus, as the title of our paper
suggests, we ask whether this represents a knowledge gap in the making.
Before any such conclusion can be made, one must analyze in depth
the types of political information available on the Net. We argue that, before
an Internet knowledge gap can be determined, researchers must examine the
channel itself in order to assess its capacity for transmitting information that
would contribute to such a gap. Obvious loci to begin such a project would be
the sites of the candidates themselves. Accordingly, our instrument taps into
two basic concerns of the knowledge gap program of research, relevance and
complexity, in order to examine candidate Web sites. We assess these issues
through an instrument that outlines ten categories of channel effectiveness: 1)
timeliness, 2) proximity, 3) prominence, 4) source diversity, 5) message
diversity, 6) presentation diversity, 7) volume, 8) accessibility, 9) image
consistency and 10) issue consistency. Timeliness, proximity, prominence,
source diversity and message diversity tap into the issue of relevance, while
presentation diversity, volume, accessibility, image consistency and issue
consistency address the issue of complexity.
If one wants to study U.S. politics on the Web there are many
sites that profess to offer information (Mann 1995). However, perhaps the most
obvious sources of information on political candidates are the sites of the
candidates themselves. Ideally containing the full text of speeches, press
releases, issue stances and the like, these serve as the primary sources on the
Net, as opposed to sites that offer secondary analysis of this data. Thus, in
preparation for this study the researchers visited the "official" home pages of
all Presidential candidates. One can find lists of such sites in a variety of
places on the Internet; however, we selected those pages listed as official by
the Yahoo! subject-oriented Web index (Yahoo 1996).
Although it would be worthwhile to perform an in-depth
investigation of the Web sites of all political candidates, the volume of the
data and the exploratory nature of this study made it more practical to limit
the number of sites examined. Given the amount of public attention devoted to
the Republican candidates and the relative importance of those candidates in a
two-party system, we determined to limit our analysis to these candidates. The
information contained on Web sites is not fixed. It can change on a weekly,
daily or even hourly basis. Accordingly, this study examined sites over time in
order to gauge the flux and consistency of information. Sites were visited
repeatedly during a period from February 24 to March 12 inclusive. Visits
occurred at randomly selected dates and times, with no more than a five day gap
between visits. During the course of this study the Republican field narrowed
to three major candidates-- Bob Dole, Patrick Buchanan and Steve Forbes. These
constituted the purposive sample for this investigation. Final coding occurred
on March 12, the day Forbes withdrew from the race, beginning at 5 p.m.
Two primary coders examined each site using the Netscape
Navigator 2.0 Web browser over a 56 K per second Internet connection. Netscape
is one of many programs available for browsing the World Wide Web; however, it
has several distinct advantages for those conducting Internet research. An
estimated 82.5 percent of those on the Internet currently use Netscape to view
Web documents (Jennings Communications 1995). The second most popular browser,
Mosaic, claims only 3.1 percent of the market. Netscape also possesses the
ability to handle certain document features, known as "Netscape extensions," and
computer applications, called "plug-ins," that other browsers have been slow to
adopt (Netscape Communications 1995).
The coders appraised and printed hard copies of every document in
every section or "room" at each site; in other words, this study evaluates all
data contained at each site, not merely a sample of that data. While variations
among equipment and software make it difficult to render a precise estimate of
the volume of data examined, one can roughly compare one site to another simply
by counting the number of printed 8 1/2 by 11 inch pages. Sites were found to
grow in volume rather than change indiscriminately, as older data were archived
and retained for public inspection. Final analysis involved 1,575 pages divided
among the candidates as follows: Dole, 469; Buchanan, 974; and Forbes, 236.
The study employs an instrument designed to gauge channel
effectiveness -- the degree to which candidates take advantage of the new
medium's unique capabilities, such as immediacy, interactivity, sourcing and
multimedia. To this end we have created an instrument that measures 10
categories of channel effectiveness: 1) timeliness, 2) proximity, 3)
prominence, 4) source diversity, 5) message diversity, 6) presentation
diversity, 7) volume, 8) accessibility, 9) image consistency and 10) issue
consistency. Using the Spearman-Brown Prophesy Formula, intercoder reliability
achieved a score of near 100 percent in categories based upon purely objective
data._ However, in the areas of image consistency and issue consistency some
decrease in reliabiltiy was noted. In the former category, the formula yielded
a reliability coefficient of 0.953. In the latter, the formula yielded a
coefficient of 0.958. The high level of inter-coder agreement was due to the
existence of overwhelmingly dominent themes permeating each site. One assumes
that reliability would drop off in the event coders attempted to include
Timeliness refers to the perceivable gap between the moment a
user views a message or document and the time when that message was last
updated. Most basic media writing texts recognize that recent information
possesses greater news value than dated information (Brooks, et al. 1995;
Mencher 1996). We can therefore assume that timely information will generally
be more relevant that dated information.
This study assessed timeliness on several fronts. Coders
examined each site for an "update notice," a note on the front page of the
document indicating when the site was last updated. If no notice was found,
they looked through the site to verify when the site was last updated by
locating dated material. A score of 1-10 was given for each site, with a 10 for
sites that had been updated on the same day the coders visited that site and a 0
for sites that had never been updated. Coders also assessed the frequency with
which dated items such as press releases were updated. Ten dates were selected
at random from January 1, 1996 to March 12, 1996. The coders examined each room
in the site looking for material bearing that date. "Hits" were recorded,
resulting in a score of 0-10, which was averaged with the overall site update to
generate a timeliness score.
Journalists and end users also place greater value upon
information that is geographically proximate to them (Brooks, et al. 1995;
Mencher 1996). As a British press lord once said, "One Englishman is a story.
Ten Frenchmen is a story. One hundred Germans is a story. And nothing ever
happens in Chile" (in Romano 1986). Geographic proximity remains important on
the Internet. However, the interactive nature of the new medium provides a new
kind of virtual proximity, a feeling that the person or persons communicating
with you are somehow near.
This study gauged the geographic proximity by examining the
amount of information aimed at audiences in individual states and voting
provinces. Given the nature of the election, good sites have specific areas
devoted to state-level information. Coders looked for a geographic-specific
room at each site and measured the largest such room in terms of how many states
and voting provinces were addressed. A score of 0-10 was given, with a 10
referring to a site that covered all states and voting provinces and a 1
referring to a site that had only one state in a geographic-specific room.
Virtual proximity is measured by an examination of
personal/interactive devices. For example, sites that offer electronic
discussion groups or e-mail forms were determined to possess greater virtual
proximity than sites lacking such community-oriented tools. Coders looked for
10 specific tools on each site, giving one point for each tool found. The
resulting count of 0-10 was averaged with the geographic score in order to
represent overall proximity.
Media professionals generally recognize that prominent people and
organizations have greater news value than others (Brooks, et al. 1995; Mencher
1995). It follows that the more prominent someone is, the more relevant their
message will be to end users. To measure the prominence of a site, we examined
those whose endorsements appeared on a candidate's site. "Household names,"
what might in legal terms be called general purpose public figures (Associated
Press 1994) such as Mel Gibson and Barry Goldwater were deemed Rank #1
endorsements. Regionally or nationally prominent individuals/groups who did not
attain Rank #1, such as most governors or U.S. senators, were labeled Rank #2.
All other endorsements were placed in Rank #3.
Our instrument assigned a score to that site based upon the
number of endorsements received in each category, with Rank #1 endorsements
receiving the 10 points, Rank #2 getting 5 points and Rank #3 endorsements
receiving 1 point each. The resulting scores were added and divided by 10.
Scores were limited to a maximum of 10, resulting in a 0-10 point scale.
Journalists also recognize that information is more believable if
it comes from more than one source. A greater diversity of sources produces a
"replication effect" that increases the amount of information retained (Jamieson
1992). We examined each site for information from 10 different source types:
news articles, think tanks/academics, government publications or organizations,
press releases, speeches, op-ed pieces/editorial cartoons, politicians, social
figures (movie stars, sports figures, etc.), groups/organizations and
unclassified individuals. A source could be either a group/person cited in a
press release or a link to another Web site. A site received one point for each
source type represented, resulting in an overall score of 0-10.
A diversity of messages types also increases the likelihood that
end users will deem information relevant. Candidates need to do more than
simply present a one-dimensional image of themselves. For example, they need to
discuss the issues, provide personal and professional information, talk about
their political philosophy, and let people know what's happening in their
We examined each site for a ten message types: candidate personal
information, candidate professional information, candidate financial
information, party information, site information, issue information, a
philosophical statement, a calendar/schedule, symbolic information and "other"
information. A site received one point for each message type represented,
resulting in a score of 0-10.
Communication scholars have long recognized that information with
a strong visual component tends to gain and hold one's attention. Media design
specialists recognize this and attempt to achieve a proper mix of textual and
graphical components. Where appropriate, they also include audio and video. A
design that balances text and graphical images helps the end user mediate
information complexity. The Internet is capable of handling text, graphics,
photos, audio and video. Therefore, an effective Web site should provide a
blend of these elements to better convey information.
We conducted a preliminary evaluation of graphical elements on
political Web sites with two coders. After reviewing all available candidate
Web sites, the coders concluded that two graphics per room appeared to be the
most effective. This usually consisted of a graphical lede element and a
iconographic menu bar at the base of the document. In a pending study, the
researchers presented select Web sites to 60 students in three mass
communication courses. Preliminary analysis of the data indicates that the
subjects seemed to find the 2:1 image to text ratio most effective. Therefore,
in this study sites that provided a 2:1 ratio of graphical images to text,
together with some audio and video, received a higher score than either those
that relied overmuch upon raw text or those that appear to be a mere slide show
of pretty pictures.
The volume of information contained upon a site presents several
problems to the researcher. A plenitude of information, by its nature, has
neither a positive nor a negative impact upon the its effectiveness. On the one
hand, an end user can be buried by megabytes of worthless data. Then again, one
would certainly be underwhelmed by a candidate who offered only a single 8 1/2
by 11 inch page of information about his campaign. This study looks at volume
as one potential component of complexity. Rather than attempting to measure
bytes or megabytes of information, this study simply gauges volume by the number
of 8 1/2 by 11 inch pieces of paper that the site itself generates when printed
in total. When links pointed to off-site areas such as the Library of Congress
or the Republican Party's home page, those sites were not included in the page
count. Printed pages from each site were counted and given a score based upon a
0-10 variable interval scale as follows.
Accessibility mediates volume. More data has a positive effect
only if it is well organized and easily accessible. A telephone book is of
little value in locating a person's number if not organized alphabetically.
This study measures both the logical and technical accessibility of political
Web sites. In order to achieve a high accessibility score, a site must be
organized hierarchically with a clear and complete table of contents. A
computer-assisted method for searching the site should be present, preferably
one that permits the end user to search for words of his or her choosing. The
site must be linear, but also permit users to traverse rooms in three
dimensions. It also must be open to users of limited technical ability, with
limited equipment. Sites were awarded points based upon the existence or
absence of these features.
Consistency helps combat complexity. The consistent use of
specific images -- symbols, visual cues and thematic concepts -- helps the end
user make sense of a specific site. They can lend it form. Advertising
researchers advocate the consistent use of certain symbols (e.g., Golden Arches,
Helping Hands) to create a positive emotional response. On a political Web
site, image consistency supports a candidate's effort to provide information
about himself and his campaign. In this study, coders examined each site in its
entirety and identified recurring symbols, visual cues and thematic or
"candidate image" concepts. Each image type was then given a score reflecting
the percentage of rooms in which it appeared, receiving a score from 0 (none) to
10 (90-100 percent of the rooms). The scores were then averaged to provide an
overall image consistency score.
In addition to consistency of image, a political candidate must
be consistent with regard to issues. One can address every issue that arises
during a campaign, but a wise candidate selects a few specific issues to make
his own. For example, Bill Clinton in his 1992 Presidential campaign chose the
economy as one issue that would help define his campaign. Coders in this study
visited every issue-oriented room in a candidate's Web site in order to assess
the site's issue consistency. In most cases this included rooms containing
press releases, speeches, issue statements and philosophical statements. Where
applicable, it also included candidate writings, newsletters and weekly updates.
Coders identified possible issue themes running through a site. Each issue
theme was then given a score reflecting the percentage of rooms in which it
appeared, receiving a score from 0 (none) to 10 (90-100 percent of the rooms) to
provide an overall issue consistency score.
Each candidate's Web site was given a score ranging from 0-10 in
each category of channel effectiveness, resulting in a total score of 0-100. In
each case, higher scores reflect that a site that reduces channel noise (Schramm
1955) and helps communicate information effectively. Lower scores indicate that
the site remains an ineffective source of potential information.
To summarize, a political candidate's Web site will be deemed an
effective channel for communication if the site helps make the candidate's
issues relevant and clear to the end user. Sites help make issues relevant if
they offer timely information that is both geographically and virtually close to
that user. The messages sent should be diverse enough that end users will get a
full picture of the candidate, and they should come from a variety of preferable
prominent sources. Sites reduce the complexity of information if they provide a
balanced presentation with consistent images and issues that offers a great deal
of data in a logically and technically accessible manner.
The Web sites of each of the three top candidates in the 1996
Republican primary race took advantage of the Internet's ability to provide
timely information on the campaign. Both the Forbes and Dole sites had been
updated in some form on the day coders performed their analysis, while
Buchanan's had been updated one day earlier (Mean = 9.67). However, none of the
sites updated their press releases, speeches, activities or other issues on a
daily basis resulting a low update frequency score (Mean = 2.33). Forbes
received the highest score for overall Timeliness (7.0), with Dole second (6.0)
and Buchanan last (5.0).
The candidates exhibited far greater variance with regard to
proximity. The Dole site possessed a very strong geographic-specific room
offering a clickable map that provides information about organizers and
supporters in all 50 states, but no voting provinces (9.0). The site also
offered a variety of interactive material, including unique opportunities for
end users to create a Dole "poster" (see Illustration 1) or take a quiz about
the site (6.0). Buchanan's site featured a geographic-centered room listing
Buchanan Brigade members in 47 states (8.0). The site also boasted a wide
variety of interactive possibilities, including an open board where end users
could post messages to one another (8.0). On the other end of the spectrum, the
Forbes site failed to take advantage of either geographic or virtual proximity.
The site offered only one room offering geographic-specific information for less
than nine states (2.0) and just three interactive tools (3.0). Buchanan
received the highest score for overall Proximity (8.0), with Dole second (7.5)
and Forbes last (2.5).
Insert Illustration 1 About Here
As might be expected, Dole easily claimed the top score among the
various candidates with regard to prominence. He communicated the endorsement
of one Rank #1 source (Barry Goldwater), 27 Rank #2 sources and 21 Rank #3
sources for a prominence score of 10.0. Buchanan fell a distant second with one
Rank #1 endorsement (Mel Gibson), 4 Rank #2 sources and 12 Rank #3 sources
(4.2). Forbes listed only three endorsements: one Rank #1 (Charles Barkley),
three Rank #2 sources and one Rank #2 (2.6).
All candidate sites performed reasonably well with regard to
source diversity. Buchanan site offered information from all 10 sources coded
as part of this study (10.0). Forbes' site left out information from think
tanks/academics and government publications (8.0), while the Dole site failed to
use think tanks/academics, news articles and op-ed pieces/editorial cartoons
Interestingly, none of the candidates took full advantage of the
Web's ability to provide a variety of message types. All three candidates
failed to disclose financial information about themselves or their campaign.
Unlike candidates from the Libertarian or Natural Law parties, all three
Republican primary candidates also failed to include information about the
Republican party or links to GOP sites. Only Dole provided serious information
about the Web site itself, even to the point of including pictures of its
opening day festivities. The Dole and Buchanan sites receive identical scores
for message diversity (7.0), with Forbes' site falling further down the scale
The Dole site scored extraordinarily well with regard to
presentation diversity. With 511 graphical images, 48 photos and 244 rooms, the
site maintained a graphics to text ratio of 2.29:1. By contrast, the Buchanan
site offered 247 graphical images and 35 photos in 487 rooms for an adequate
graphics to text ratio of 1:1.73. The Forbes site represented the online
equivalent of gray space, with only 10 graphical images and 8 photos in 114
rooms -- a graphics to text ratio of 1:6.33. Both the Buchanan and Dole offered
users the opportunity to access audio and video, while these elements were
absent from the Forbes page. Given the preferred ratio of 2:1, Dole achieved a
perfect 10.0 in presentation diversity. Buchanan fell second scoring 9.0, with
Forbes a distant third at 3.0.
In terms of sheer volume, the Buchanan site predictably achieved
the highest score (10.0). A printout of the entire site resulted in 974 sheets.
The Dole site achieved a respectable 469 printed pages (8.0), while Forbes again
made a relatively poor showing with 236 pages (5.0).
Interestingly, although both the Dole and Buchanan sites had a
large volume of information, they did not perform equally well at making that
information accessible. With a clear and complete table of contents, as well as
a limited search mechanism, the Dole site was well-organized and easy to
navigate, lacking only a choice of text-only for users with slow Internet
connections and a more robust search mechanism. Meanwhile, Buchanan's site
lacked both logical structure and technical accessibility. Although the site
claimed to offer a search mechanism, the program was "down temporarily" during
the entire study period. The opening page was organized haphazardly, without a
clear hierarchical structure. Although interconnected in several ways, the site
offered no sense of linearity, causing coders to sometimes lose their way in the
site. By contrast, the Forbes site offered a clear and complete table of
contents, as well as linear access. However, it lacked the interconnectedness
that provides depth in a Web site, as well as an adequate search mechanism to
locate documents quickly and easily. As at the Buchanan site, non-Netscape
users were left looking at a site that was sometimes confusing to their browser.
Thus, Dole received the highest score for overall Accessibility (8.0), with
Forbes second (4.0) and Buchanan last (3.0).
Image consistency proved to be another fascinating category in
studying the candidates' Web sites. Given the lack of graphical images on
Forbes site, it came as little surprise that he lacked both symbolic and
thematic consistency. Aside from a yellow bar that added a degree visual
consistency (9.6), the site lacked a consistent image. There was no symbolic
consistency (0.0) and limited thematic/candidate image consistency. The idea of
Forbes as a "political outsider with an answer" emerged, but only in
approximately one quarter of the rooms (2.5). By contrast, the Dole site
maintained a strongly consistent image. The flag symbol appeared in some form
in every room on the site (10.0), together with a pictographic menu bar at the
bottom and an iconographic lede at the top (10.0). The site also reinforced the
idea of Dole as "the Republican party's choice" (9.1) and, to a lesser extent,
as "an American Hero." Buchanan's site, meanwhile, achieved some symbolic
consistency with flag-like images (4.97), but only limited success with visual
consistency in his parchment-like backgrounds (0.68). However, the site firmly
reinforced the Buchanan's image as an "American patriot" and a "Defender of the
Unborn" (10.0). Thus, Dole received the highest score for overall Image
Consistency (9.7), with Buchanan second (5.2) and Forbes last (4.0).
While the Dole site clearly puts forth a strong image of its
candidate, it lacks power in addressing the issues. Coders identified only
three recurring issues on the Dole site: family values, welfare reform and a
balanced budget, and only the rather nebulous issues of family values achieved a
score above 50 percent. Buchanan's site, on the other hand, presented several
issues forcefully and consistently. Issues appearing in more than 50 percent of
the applicable rooms were: pro-life, anti-NAFTA, anti-immigration and America
First/pro-worker. Forbes, though more limited in scope than Buchanan, was just
as consistent in presenting his issues: a flat tax and term limits. In terms of
issue consistency then, Buchanan and Forbes each achieve a 10.0, with Dole
straggling at 5.4.
CONCLUSIONS AND FUTURE RESEARCH
The goals of this study were limited, and the results should be
considered provisional. We began by noting that the World Wide Web is a
potentially diverse, rich and powerful source of information about the political
process. We noted that the knowledge gap hypothesis predicts that this new
medium may follow a discernible pattern where the information rich, the
technologically literate and the politically aware gain great advantage over
those who lack the ability, means and motivation to access the new technology.
We further argued that the first step in assessing the presence of a knowlege
gap is to ask a set of basic questions including whether or not anything there
is worth having. In answering this question, the particular and largely
unexplored channel characteristics of the new medium cannot be ignored. The
limited goal of this paper, therefore, involved the exploration of these
We tried to establish 10 dimensions of what we called channel
effectiveness-- the degree to which candidates take advantage of the new
medium's unique capabilities such as immediacy, interactivity, sourcing and
multimedia. We began by noting that some pundits have dismissed political Web
sites as mere billboards on the information highway. However, such a
characterization fails to take into account the unique characteristics of the
Web. We believe that there is strong evidence, based upon our analysis, that
channel effectiveness is an important consideration in evaluating the potential
flow of information on Web sites. Sites that offer timely information that is
both geographically and virtually close to end users help render that
information more relevant to those individuals, especially if the information is
reinforced by a variety of messages from prominent groups and individuals.
Sites that provide a balanced presentation with consistent images and issues
that offers a great deal of data in a logically and technically accessible
manner render help reduce the complexity of their information. In short, Web
sites that serve as effective channels help individuals gather, retain and
potentially make use of information.
Channel effectiveness is a useful concept not only for candidates
trying to create a persuasive Web site and citizens trying to participate more
fully in the democratic process, but also for journalists covering a candidate's
campaign. In addition to gathering copies of speeches and facts about a
candidate's stance on various issues, reporters can also use Web sites to assess
a candidate's political strategy and, perhaps most interesting of all, his or
her overall style. This style, which comes across through the use of slogans,
key words, iconic symbols, and culturally significant themes, represents part of
what is called the "political spectacle" (Edelman 1973; Schmuhl 1990). Decoding
these strategies of mass persuasion and personal presentation remains crucial to
undertanding the candidates themselves.
Examining the data gathered for this study yields some engaging
insights into the candidates themselves. For example, the Dole site exhibits
many of the strengths one might expect of the GOP frontrunner: prominent
endorsements, effective presentation style and the strong thematic symbols and
imagery of an experienced politician. However, it is interesting to note that
the site exhibits a notable lack of attention to the issues. In fact, an
examination of the Dole site shows it to be much more concerned with image than
issue. Most of Dole's press releases deal with the various endorsements he has
received during the campaign. His geographic-specific room lists prominent
Republican supporters throughout the United States. Even his issues area
appears designed to reinforce the image of Dole as an American hero and rightful
heir to the GOP nomination.
By contrast, the Buchanan site bursts with his position on the
various issues. However, as is often the case, the candidate's great strength
might also be his great weakness. Addressing 40 separate issues throughout the
site -- more than twice as many as either Forbes or Dole (See Figure 3) --
Buchanan runs the risk of diluting the issues he truly holds dear and alienating
many of his supporters. The Buchanan site mitigates the damage by consistently
reinforcing the candidate's campaign themes of pro-life, anti-NAFTA,
anti-immigration and America First. He addresses both NAFTA and the
Insert Figure 3 About Here
abortion issue throughout his press releases, issue reports,
speeches, and his overall philosophical statement.
Now that he appears out of the race, it would appear certain
these issues will be most important to him as the GOP convention draws closer.
It is also interesting that Buchanan brings a diverse group of sources to
support his position on the various issues, much more so than either Dole or
Forbes. Clearly he is more accustomed to making an argument in print than
either of his two major opponents, and this is reflected on his Web site. His
Buchanan Brigades have a strong presence on the site as well; however, they are
perhaps partially responsible for the confusing organization of the site.
Still, by eschewing Dole's tactic of concentrating upon prominent endorsements,
Buchanan's site retains a populist feel.
Meanwhile, the Forbes site illustrates that candidate's
single-mindedness in pushing for a flat tax and term limits. These issues
appear consistently throughout his site, as do others calling for reform in the
political system (anti-Clinton, anti-Dole, anti-political class, and pro-tax
reform), with one exception. Forbes, and even more so Buchanan, appear to long
for a return to the Reagan days.
The World Wide Web represents a new form of communication, but
this is not to say that it constitutes a radically different form of
communication. Rather, the Web incorporates characteristics of mass
communication and interpersonal communication. The average Web navigator
visiting a candidate's site today accesses what is essentially a form of mass
communication or "wholesale politics," the candidate broadcasting the same
message to millions of viewers. However, many intriguing interpersonal elements
have already begun to appear on these sites foreshadowing a ressurgence of
"retail politics" whereby candidates or their avatars (virtual selves) interact
directly with potential voters. For example, the Dole site encourages visitors
to create a customized poster of the candidate or send a personalized Dole
postcard to a friend. The Buchanan site allows users to communicate with one
another either on the site's message board or through an electronic listserv of
Buchanan supporters. It is currently possible, though no candidate has done
this, to host an online talk show where the candidate fields questions from
users throughout the nation.
One can imagine a time in the not-to-distant future when users
visiting a site will be welcomed personally by a video image of the candidate
that refers to them by name and can answer any question asked, calling upon
examples that allude to items of specific interest to that user. For example,
asking a question about an upcoming tax hike could draw a different response
whether the end user is an educator, an environmentalist or a member of the
military. Simply reading data from the user's own e-mail address can already
provide Webmasters with a best guess as to their affiliations. Considering that
very little personal information remains private today, it is not inconceivable
that a person logging into a site might soon be cross-referenced with a database
containing vast amounts of data about their likes, dislikes, group memberships
and financial situation.
No study is without limitation. We recognize a certain degree of
arbitariness in measuring particular categories such as volume and presentation
diversity. We also realize that future research on political Web sites would do
well to include more candidates, candidates from more than one party, and play
closer attention to the accuracy of information on various Web sites by checking
data provided by candidates against other sources. The Internet is a perfect
laboratory for studying such questions. Web sites of political candidates are
compact, easily accessible and contain most of the data deemed important by
those interested in closely following a campaign. They are, in a sense, an
intensified version of an entire campaign equally available to reporters,
scholars and the general public.
 _ /pxx( = (2 ( /pxx() / (1+/pxx()
[--- WMF Graphic Goes Here ---]
FIGURE 1: RACIAL BREAKDOWN OF ADULTS WITH ACCESS TO COMPUTERS
[--- WMF Graphic Goes Here ---]
FIGURE 2: RACIAL BREAKDOWN OF U.S. INTERNET USERS
[--- WMF Graphic Goes Here ---]
ILLUSTRATION 1: EXAMPLE OF POSTER CREATED ON DOLE WEB SITE
Appendix I: Additional Charts
[--- WMF Graphic Goes Here ---]
FIGURE A1: BREAKDOWN BY CHANNEL EFFECTIVENESS CATEGORIES
[--- WMF Graphic Goes Here ---]
FIGURE A2: FORMAL COMPOSITION OF POLITICAL WEB SITES
[--- WMF Graphic Goes Here ---]
FIGURE A3: INFORMATION COMPOSITION OF POLITICAL WEB SITES
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