PEJ Report: Campaign Web Sites Focus More on Issues, Less on Balance

By: Joe Strupp

A review of leading presidential candidates’ campaign Web sites finds that most of them use “horse race” terminology less than the mainstream media does, and mostly stick to the issues. But the same study warns that they are clear tools of the candidates, with little regard for balanced coverage.

The survey, released Thursday by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, looked at the Web sites of 19 major candidates, eight Democrats and 11 Republicans. The report sought to find out how these sites, which are battling the press more and more as information sources and shapers of campaigns, accomplish their goals.

“The campaigns themselves, through their official Web sites, seem to be challenging the press as a destination for campaign news,” the report stated. “Furthermore, these highly interactive sites are facilitating everything from blogging to fundraising to social networking.

“We found that the online campaign is clearly a two-way conversation between candidate and voter and often even among voters themselves,” the report added. “The content on the sites focuses more on issues than the ‘horse race’ tactics that often interest the mainstream media. On the other hand, these sites are self-serving and lack traditional journalism’s scrutiny, balance and ability to compare candidates against one another.”

Among the reports top assertions:

? “Democrats lead Republicans in using their Web sites to get visitors involved in the campaign (both engaging in the dialogue and participating in grassroots activity). Barack Obama is the clear leader here, followed by Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Bill Richardson.”

? “Perhaps the most fundamental grassroots activity of all, getting people to register to vote, is surprisingly lacking on these candidate sites. Only four candidates — Hillary Clinton, John Cox, John McCain and Barack Obama — feature information or tools to register to vote on their sites.”

? “In their choice of language, there were some notable differences between Republicans and Democrats. The GOP candidates emphasize such words as ‘leadership,’ ‘taxes,’ and ‘values’ while Democrats stressed ‘children,’ ‘family’ and ‘protect.’

? “When the candidates are talking about themselves, there are certain words that they have chosen to ignore. Nowhere to be found in the biographies are ‘God,’ ‘moral,’ and ‘progressive.’ No Democrat uses the word ‘liberal,’ and even Republican frontrunners shy away from using ‘conservative.’ Hillary Clinton almost entirely avoids mentioning her husband.”

The report also finds that 15 of the 19 sites feature blogs, while seven offer users the chance to start their own blogs. Mitt Romney has his five sons writing his campaign blog, with Sam Brownback letting users contribute to his and John Edwards lets users write diaries.

“Savvy visitors may even be able to determine leading candidates from the so-called lesser ones,” the report states. “The top candidates — those with the most money and poll popularity — have the most technically sophisticated sites, update more often, use more video and include more news articles. They also focus on fewer issues.”

It adds that Edwards looks at the fewest issues, with six, and Dennis Kucinich has the most at 91, noting he is the only discussing hemp and animal rights.

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