Wednesday, May 25, 2011

How the Internet Affects the Give-and-Take Between Candidates and Reporters...

In media studies, political campaigns are often viewed as strategic contests between candidates and reporters - candidates seek the free publicity while reporters seek to maintain their autonomy and not simply echo stump speeches. How will the Internet affect this dynamic in 2012?

This is the question tackled in a new article by Shanto Iyengar, "The Media Game - New Moves, Old Strategies" (The Forum: Vol. 9: Iss. 1, Article 1). Iyengar highlights how political candidates have held the advantage over reporters since the 1980s, developing intricate strategies to use or evade the media to their benefit, while reporters have been slower to adapt to new media technologies in order to protect their independence.

Iyengar suggests that the Internet has only strengthened the candidates' hand.

Although candidates can do little to persuade reporters to cover their speeches at length, they are in position today to accomplish an end-run: information technology provides them with a means of bypassing the media and reaching voters directly. At trivial cost, candidates can deposit their speeches, press releases, campaign ads, testimonials, and anything else they consider relevant on their websites (Druckman et al. 2009). As bandwidth has become more plentiful and video-compression technology more advanced, the content of these websites features a rich array of multi-media presentations designed to attract and hold the user’s attention.

The advent of video sharing technology and the rapid growth in the reach of social networking sites thus opened up vast new possibilities for direct candidate to voter communication. Moreover, new media platforms often provide the campaigns with precise data concerning the background and interests of their users, making it possible for the candidates to “target” pre-defined groups of voters with messages designed to resonate with their interests and policy preferences. As technology has diffused and more Americans spend significant amounts of time online, the audience for online news gradually approaches the audience for television news.

None of this is new or revealing information. However, its import, taken collectively, has serious consequences when viewed through a journalistic lens. Candidates can now bypass the media completely and communicate directly to voters. Reporters who have traditionally acted as filters for the public, deciding what was important and what was not, are now relegating to an even lesser role. They've become the obsolete middle-man.

Or so the argument goes. Skeptics might point out that the Internet's myriad of proliferating voices are precisely why those filters are more crucial now than ever before, and reporters' original purpose of seeing through the political spin to maintain independence and autonomy is certainly as valid today as it was at any other time in history.

Perhaps Iyengar's most interesting contribution, then, is in this concluding point... Rather than waiting for news organizations to report on the policies they care about, technology enables voters to examine candidates' positions on all issues whenever they feel like it. Paying attention to the issues - instead of the media circus that too often centers around the more entertaining facets of the campaign like the "horse race", the advertising, the strategy, and scandalous behavior - means that voters could potentially become more issue-oriented. And that's a good thing.

Ironically, the role of the Internet in the upcoming 2012 elections might be to exacerbate the growing divide between, what are increasingly, two very distinct electorates in American politics... those who seek to wade through all the spin and muck to actually vote on the substantive issues, versus those who are eager to get caught up in it.


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