Sunday, January 27, 2008

Blogs As News Sources? Puh-leeze!

Every two years the American politics industry fills the airwaves with the most virulent, scurrilous, wall-to-wall character assassination of nearly every political practitioner in the country - and then declares itself puzzled that America has lost trust in its politicians. ~Charles Krauthammer

I've been reading Scott Bradner's Network World column for years. Unlike Al Gore, Mr. Bradner really was there at the birth of the Internet. As a result, his insights into what goes on in technology, telecommunications, and the Internet are worth reading. I think, though, he may have taken a sip of the old Internet Kool-Ade (TM) this time.

According to the story, the fun folks over at Pew Research have done a study (doesn't everybody these days?) on where people get their presidential campaign information. In this study, they found that most people still get the bulk of their information from traditional sources like CNN. The Internet, though, is coming up fast on the rail, increasing from 9% of respondents in 2000 to 24% in the most recent study. It also seems to show that, if you're an old booger like me, you get your information from traditional sources (TV, newspapers, gossip over the back fence). On the other hand, if you're in that demographic sweet spot of 18-29, you big source tends to be things you read on your computer.

Now that's interesting as far it goes, but Mr. Bradner uses that information as a springboard to warn against the dangers of using the Internet as a primary information source, especially blogs. Now, he admits that bias is a part of news reporting; it would be hard to deny that. Back when I was in high school, I took a current events course. As part of that we all subscribed (at a suitably low scholastic rate) to a news magazine.

Yes, they had magazines back then.

At any rate, I don't recall which magazine we took, but I recall the teacher explaining that each of the major choices (Newsweek, Time, and US News and World) all had biases and that he had selected the least biased (at least back then) of the three. But, even with that, we were always alert to the fact that any publication, including the one we were using, might provide its own slant to reporting.

Mr. Bradner acknowledges that any news outlet, CNN or Fox or anyone, has an agenda that is going to color what they report. The danger, he seems to say, is that, while viewers of, say, CNN, have enough experience with the outlet to know its leanings, they won't recognize those leanings from a casual visit to some blog or an another.

In other words, even though we can recognize bias on TV, we believe everything we read on the Internet, especially if you're 18-29.

However, let's take a closer look at the Pew data. The 32-page report has a breakdown of all the questions asked with responses collated. As an old Quality Assurance practitioner, I always like to dig into some of the raw numbers just to see if there's anything interesting, and this report did not disappoint. Allow me to direct your attention to question 34:

Thinking about news websites and other sources of campaign information online… Please name some of the websites where you get information about the presidential campaigns and candidates?
And what do you think people said? It seems that traditional news sources are still their number one choice. First is MSNBC (NBC News) followed by CNN. Yahoo News and Google News come up next, but they primarily aggregate traditional news sources. Small percentages of respondents (3 and 2 percent respectively) claim to get news from MySpace and YouTube.

Blogs don't enter into it.

Now some individual blogs may in that 20% of "Other", but those people are also probably checking out one or more of the so-called traditional sources (people were asked to name up to six sources). But, it would appear that the specter of blogs being viewed as reliable news sources is just that -- a specter.

I am not about to say that there aren't dummies who believe everything they see on the Internet; the news media themselves are proof positive about that. There have been more than enough occasions when some satire or just off-the-wall piece has been picked up by AP or CNN or whoever as gospel. So why shouldn't the average users fall for one occasionally? But, it appears that, if the regular news sources get it right, the vast majority of Internet surfers are going to see them often enough to get some legitimate info.

Of course, they're going to be getting a lot of political fluff from the candidates in the process, but that is in no way different than things are now.

I hate to disagree with Scott Bradner, because he's a smarter person than I am, but I'm just not ready to believe that the wild-west part of the Internet is a significant source of opinion for surfers. Sure, blogs are viewed by millions (well, except for this one), but that doesn't mean they're taken any more seriously than they would some local TV anchor giving an op-ed piece.

Now YouTube could be something else. Just remember how dumb John Kerry looked trying to play football. It seems that a stupid video moment carries more weight with the electorate than any statement of positions on the war in Iraq or child health care.

The Internet isn't going t make some voters any dumber than they already are.

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