Abstract: My final essay

December 1, 2008

Master of the Internet:

How Barack Obama Harnessed New Tools and Old
Lessons to Connect, Communicate and Campaign his Way to the White House

This paper confirms and explains how Barack Obama used Web 2.0 tools to build a network of  supporters and contributors on the Internet that is unrivaled in political history.

Research reports, statistics and contemporary news articles over the past decade proved to be the best sources to investigate the art and science of election by Internet.

Obama used the cumulative experience of predecessors to build a nearly flawless Web presence.

Some of the best examples were full of irony. John McCain was the most Internet-savvy candidate for president in the 2000 election, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars directly from his supporters on the Internet.

But McCain was unable to use that knowledge again – and the tools developed by others – to tap into the networks frequented by young people who were likely Obama supporters in 2008.

Howard Dean discovered a network strategy by accident in 2004 when he attended a meeting organized through Meetup.com. That seed would not make him a winner, but it was an idea that grew during Dean’s tenure as chairman of the Democratic Party.

Fast and accurate analysis by the New York Times was often the best way to find data between the November 4 election and the deadline for this report. UNC Libraries proved an essential source of earlier reports such as Small donors and online giving by the  Institute for Politics Democracy & the Internet and Demographics of Internet users from the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

In the end, this research showed that Obama is likely govern in ways never seen before through his 10-million-strong supporters imported from the campaign database to the White House. In addition to sending his message, unfiltered, to millions, Obama may be ready to create a self-directed political force that will bring his agenda to bear on the entire Washington structure through the efforts of those networked supporters.

Read the full report

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EOTO 5: Kennedy Elliott’s essay

November 7, 2008

I enjoyed Kennedys post for several reasons:

— It was exceptionally well written

— It was a subject I knew almost nothing about

— It was full of easy and useful links

— Her concerns and solutions were well organized

— She offered a wealth of resources that exceeded the assigned guidelines.

As a journalist and also the son of a broadcast executive, I have long been aware of the Fair Use Doctrine, certain media copyright issues and public domain concerns.

But I did not know such aggressive maneuvering was going on regarding news video during the campaign season.

I was aware that Saturday Night Live had clashed with YouTube a couple of years ago when the Web site began posting Digital Shorts and other sketches. But I thought such issues had been sorted out.

Just as removing video from YouTube might hurt a campaigns media effort, this case reminds me that the reverse can be true as well: A fraudulent campaign ad only needs to be repeated a few times before it has an impact. A candidate has a hard time offering proof that an ad is wrong once the seed is planted.

Thus, we get a strong illustration of the power of video and the Internet, and the lengths to which networks and campaigns will fight for the right to show it.

This is also another example of how porous and ubiquitous the Internet has become. It would have been unthinkable 40 years ago when just a few networks were the gatekeepers and the average campaign or individual didnt have the resources to produce quick ads from existing film.

This kind of thing, however, is probably nothing that would upset a network executive.

This solution suggested by Kennedy reminds me of efforts to reduce frivolous lawsuits in the court system:

Combat abuse of copyright notification filing. Incorporate new guidelines to the policy, as in a merit-system where most-watched videos receive precedent of review. Make the filing process more detailed and lengthy, to deter false claiming. Harsher consequences should be set for violators.

But again, I wonder if some people would be willing to brave penalties in order to inflict temporary damage through that take-down time during a time-sensitive campaign or corporate dispute. Clearly, as Kennedy has pointed out, legal opportunists will find ways to manipulate what may have been a well-meaning set of rules.

And as we see with ongoing disputes over music, publishing and other media online, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act will continue to be subject to interpretation as the Internet grows, expands and flowers down turns and alleys we cannot even imagine.

As we learn in this WIRED piecethe act solved more problems than it created, and led to the explosion in the DVD market.

It also means that the average musician or creative person will have to learn a lot more about his art – and the laws governing its Internet publication – in this infinitely more complex world.

EOTO 4: Charles Faulkner’s essay

November 7, 2008

Charles Faulkner writes a thorough and helpful analysis of consumer privacy issues and the Internet.

Companies have been gathering personal information for decades, of course, going back to the days of the Sears catalog, as this history shows. Mailing lists have been traded between companies as currency for finding the best, most lucrative consumers.

Faulkner is clear, however, that the powers of the Internet  – from supercomputing to infinite networks – can compound privacy problems in ways that we could not imagine a few years ago.

Financial Cryptography, for example, attempts to track the security breaches and efforts to stop them that have become an industry in their own right. Not only are these security threats pervasive, they also appear to be difficult to track, if this particular post is any indication.

Charles offers useful resources in his Web links section, especially The Consumer Privacy Guide, Code of Conduct for Global Marketing and Federal Trade Commission’s page on Privacy.

To improve his offering, Charles might want to beef up his explanation of personal fears about the issue, what kinds of impact it might have on society and what kinds of solutions are being worked on. Also, it would be interesting to see more scholarly research about this topic, such as the article “Consumer Privacy and the Market for Customer Information” by Curtis R. Taylor from The RAND Journal of Economics, Vol. 35, No. 4 (Winter, 2004), pp. 631-650, which can be found through JSTOR at the UNC Library site.

This study uses careful mathematical formulas to suggest that such marketing is useful and even desirable to consumers, but that it comes with a cost.

Another interesting article comes from the state of California, which held a summit to take on identity theft – another serious consequence when consumer privacy is breached.

Overall, Charles has produced an interesting look at an increasingly vital topic. 

EOTO 3: Bobby Ramsey’s essay

November 7, 2008

Bobby Ramsey’s EOTO entry “Facebook as Catalyst for Improving Thoughts about the Candidates” offers a creative and unusual glimpse into the evolution of political belief as shaped partially through networked interaction. 

Rather than report from a distance, as most of us did, about a given topic, he chose the novel and fascinating approach of tracing his own discussions and debates about Sen. Barack Obama’s political positions. In the process, he mapped not only how his thoughts changed on particular subjects, but how anyone with a strong bias might go about testing the worth of their beliefs. 

If more people took Bobby’s approach to political discourse, we might not see as much political gridlock in Washington and partisan hostility within the nation. He doesn’t suggest people should drop cherished beliefs, he simply suggests that everyone could be a bit more curious, a bit more open to discussion. 

Of course, he uses Facebook as the laboratory for this investigation, and it comes off as a more than adequate communication tool in the right hands. 

As a neutral “public commons,” many have written about Facebook’s unique role as a meeting place of people and ideas. Bobby suggests it’s a persuasive one: 

“As you will see, I have undergone a personal evolution in my thoughts about the candidates — including two important stages.”

His personal evolution and perspective are a wonderful way of connecting with a topic. This reads far less like a research project and more like a personal journal. 

By saying that “I debated hotly, mostly parroting existing allegations against Obama that I now regret, and generally embarrassed myself,” Bobby takes a candid and courageous position that might make him vulnerable if he were a public person.

“Then I began to sense, through debate with one particular Facebook friend who is a pro-life Democrat, that there were holes in my argument,” Bobby writes, “or at the least, that Obama’s vote on the bill did not support the sweeping conclusion I had drawn.”

This showed that he was doing his own intellectual investigation as a voter, following through hunches and being open to discussion. That’s the true nature of debate, and he teaches us a valuable point here. Partison gainsaying – taking entrenched positions that never waver – is not debate in the true sense of the word. 

Bobby is not alone in his sense that something good is happening on Facebook. 

Mike Westling, of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, published this 2007 paper that makes a very relevant point: 

“Facebook may be a better means of achieving a true public sphere than anything that has come before it, online or otherwise. The sheer fact that over half the student population at most universities is part of the network as well as millions of other people around the world demonstrates the utility of Facebook as an arena for communication. There is no other online community that connects members of real-world communities (geographic, ideological, or otherwise) in such an effective way.”

This paper makes a nice counterpoint to Bobby’s  EOTO essay because it digs even more deeply into the Facebook discussion phenomenon. 

In general, it shows how so many issues like this are vastly more complex than black and white interpretations of them would suggest. That is why they are so difficult to solve, even in the hands of such learned people as Supreme Court justices, who devote sensitive study. Again, however, this shows the benefit of making Internet connections that can supply not only wide-ranging opinion, but a nearly endless supply of information and articles to back up that opinion. 

Such phrases as “Now I was in a real pickle!” make Bobby’s self-referential writing a pleasure to read. It flows almost as a journal written by a man using an open mind to wrestle with challenges to his political convictions. 

Bobby’s five fears are clearly well-considered. And they deal primarily with the pitfalls of superficial thinking that can be so seductive on an Internet that often seems a mile wide and only an inch deep with intellectual curiosity. 

This is something we have discussed through our class at various times and it continues to ring true.

If online commentary is often anonymous and written by untrained people without basic journalism ethics, how can anybody read it with confidence at all? It begins to look like an infinite “letters to the editor” column without the benefit of knowing who or where a person is. Rather than illuminating the world with political discourse, the network is weighted with the flotsam of a million minds disengaged from each other. 

A great effort of integrating a difficult and personally challenging project! 

EOTO 2: Tyler Ritter’s essay

November 6, 2008

Tyler Ritter’s EOTO entry “Shock Waves” is a well-titled and thoughtfully written study of how our media over-stimulation, especially through the Internet, is wounding some of our more vulnerable or undisciplined citizens.

Such examples as “Should Tragedy be Used as Entertainment?” show how the original victims of accidents and tragedies are not only exploited by friends or acquaintances who post videos, but also by thousands or millions who use them for sick enjoyment on the Internet. Further victims are created as children stumble across these upsetting scenes.

Adults are understandably upset by such graphics as well. One wonders whether the media saturation online, in print and on television during the 9/11 tragedies was so overwhelming that millions suffered even more trauma than they would have in simpler times. How, for example, was a nation able to survive the relentless horrors of World War II without suffering a mass breakdown? Consider that for some time, media reports were more sanitized and scrutinized before reaching the public.

This site from PBS offers an interesting glimpse, for example, of the evolution of film coverage in World War II as the government decided to show the most horrific images after two years at war:

“When we saw those first pictures of Tarawa we were overcome, just overcome,” Katharine Phillips said. “It was just devastating to us. Those American boys’ bodies floating in the surf. We just sat around and cried and I know that’s why they had kept it from the American public for so long.”

I’m not advocating a return to the clubby days of a press that censored itself, or agreed with government censorship, but I am suggesting that we as consumers must consider, as Tyler’s entry suggests, ways of protecting ourselves.

I am reminded how, after 9/11, and a non-stop diet of television for about a week, I couldn’t bear to look at all the news magazines and newspapers that began flooding my house. Several had covers with nothing but black ink on them. Bleak times. So I piled them in a corner and waited about two months until I could actually stand to read and learn from them. I was determined to absorb as much as possible, but the brain can only absorb so much in a short period of time.

Back to Tyler’s presentation. I have a couple of suggestions that might make it even better:

 In addition to the very well chosen articles that she uses for examples, I’d like to see a few more Web sites that are comprehensive resources. The Dart Center link, for example, is a useful destination for information and assistance for journalists and beyond. LouisGray.com, for example, is another good place to start. It offers solutions for better filtering, all the way down to some of the most sophisticated ways to get the most from the Internet without overload. Let’s say it’s a complex way to simplify the Internet.

 Find ways of combining the multiple articles and suggestions for more information into more succinct categories so readers can see a little more nuance on first glance.

As a person who has given such issues a lot of thought, both professionally and personally, I believe Tyler hits the target on addiction to shocking news – I know I was programmed as a kid by the two Kennedy assassinations and Martin Luther King.

We can all learn a lot from her presentation.

EOTO 1: Alex Molaire’s essay

November 5, 2008

Alex Molaire’s Each One Teach One project “False photos exacerbated via the Internet” is a clear and consistent depiction of how easy it is for unethical people to alter photographs and give them a wide audience through technology that did not exist just a decade ago.

She truly grasps the photo issues that give newspaper editors nightmares, and should greatly concern anybody with an abiding interest in truth on the Internet.

When a photograph is digitally altered, then represented as a true photograph, the false image “cascades” through the Internet, as Alex so aptly puts it, to wash away the truth and fool people, often for no reason. The Army’s Sept. 8, 2008 alteration of a photo of Sgt. Wesley R. Durban by placing the head and name of Staff Sgt. Darris Dawson on it was disturbing proof that no institution is immune. And the photograph temporarily fooled the Associated Press, until it was withdrawn.

The news industry has developed its own code, however, to fight such digital breeches, and I believe this will at least stop one potential wellspring of false photos.

This analysis by Kenneth Irby of Poynter Institute is a great place to start with an in-depth look at the news industry’s thinking and some small and not-so-small problems. It suggests that a new creed for photojournalists written by the Society for News Design is now an excellent tool, offering a clear code of behavior and a method of defending against mistakes for pressured journalists.

For, as Irby writes, the public is now becoming more critical than ever as digital photo software has gone mainstream.

“On the receiving end are news consumers far better equipped to evaluate the integrity of the photographs — both for accuracy and aesthetics — and to make themselves heard when they believe photojournalists and their news organizations have fallen short.”

Altered photos can even stir the political pot, as this disgraceful incident caused by a fringe artist drew mainstream media and politicians into conflict.

This, again, shows that editors that try to remain neutral can no longer expect to be untouched. They must adopt codes of ethics and tools for action that can protect their integrity and provide truthful photographs for their readers.

As the WIRED article “Every Picture Can Tell a Lie” put it:

“If we let the system break down completely, skepticism will yield to destructive cynicism. And if that happens, we will all be sorry. Today, a good picture is worth a thousand words. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why we would want to devalue that, and make a picture worth nothing more than a lie.”

Alex offers another excellent reference in the article from WIRED – “You Can’t Believe Your Eyes” from photographer Pedro Meyer:

“The public will understand that photographers are more than button-pushers, that they make judgments, and that photographs are created. People approach my work differently now that they’re conscious I can change the image.”

And yet, we see it all the time in our popular culture, from airbrushed magazine covers to full-body transplants for actresses that aren’t quite svelte enough.

Even anti-smoking sentiment can get into the act, as is the case on the cover of Bruce Springsteen’s box set “Tracks,” which shows the singer sitting in a chair with empty hands. The original photo, which has been published elsewhere, clearly shows a pack of cigarettes in one hand and a lit smoke in the other.

Still, photographers have always been prone to monkeying around with their work, from the 1860s through Ansel Adams and beyond, whether art or embarrassment is the goal, photography has always been malleable.

The Internet, however, makes it more pervasive, as Alex persuasively argues. Her reference to the Snopes Fauxtography site offers some amazing examples of frightfully true and false visual images. I especially enjoyed the TV show depiction of a plane accident represented as the real thing.

Just as with written interpretations, it will become more difficult to stop altered visual truth from permeating the Internet. Just as irresponsible hackers will ruin the party for everyone, so will pranksters on a lark, or those with more sinister motives, bend the medium to their own goals.

Alex’s project reminds us that as Internet consumers, blog prose is not the only content we should be wary of, especially as content origin becomes increasingly anonymous.

And Alex is spot-on with some of the solutions she offers, such as this one:

“Establish a photo editing policy at all news organizations: As more false images were discovered, news organizations and societies began developing digital photography ethics codes. A photo editing policy should be enforced at all news organizations so all photographers are following the same set of rules and a high level of journalistic credibility is maintained.”

My newspaper has done this for many years, especially as computers have become more sophisticated, and the photo editor does a great job of enforcing it. He brings commitment and pride to the issue, just as we writers have commitment and pride about accuracy.

All around, an excellent assessment of digital photo issues.

EOTO: Internet Censorship in China

October 31, 2008

China opened its doors to the world for the Olympics in 2008 – another sign that the once-isolated nation is in flower, culturally and economically, as it becomes a player in world sports and business competition.

But China’s leaders want to restrain that freedom with a heavy dose of control, through Internet censorship and programs that block access to the outside world. Internet censorship is a sign that the old totalitarian government is trying to control a new information source that is not so easily contained by a central information ministry.

China’s government exerts control but offers the illusion of freedom by allowing only a small amount of negative information about the government onto the Chinese Internet. And China allows pro-China and anti-Western thought to flourish unchecked, according to journalism professor Rebecca MacKinnon in a January, 2008 “Public Choice” article entitled “Flatter world and thicker walls? Blogs, censorship and civic discourse in China”:

“It is easy to access information showing the Chinese government in a
positive light, or at least being responsive to certain problems the regime admits to having.

Information criticizing or complaining about the status quo does exist online, but it is kept at the level of specific complaints, localized gripes and oblique jokes. Only tech savvy users who know in advance what exists and what they are looking for will access pages about Chinese authorities’ human rights abuses, or information relating to the Taiwan secession movement.

On the other hand, information about Japanese atrocities, alleged US “secret
prisons” and abuses at Abu Ghraib, and belligerent vitriol supporting attacks on Taiwan if it declares independence, are all easily found in Chinese cyberspace.

Thanks in part to this filtered view of the world, nationalism and xenophobia have found fertile breeding ground on the Chinese Internet, while a pro-democracy movement has been prevented from growing there (MacKinnon 2005a). This situation is reinforced by recent survey results—surprising to many Westerners—showing that most urban Chinese Internet users actually trust domestic sources of news and information more than they trust the information found on foreign news websites (Guo et al. 2005, pp. 66–67).”

If allowed to succeed, China’s government could keep its people from realizing their true intellectual and economic potential in relation to the rest of the world. This will continue to endanger the world if a massive national population remains under the control of a few, while the world’s population is learning endless varieties of free thought through the Internet’s limitless space for creative connection and innovation.

As China obtains more sophisticated weapons systems, the world can ill afford to have a rogue nation of people without access to the facts and tools for debate about the consequences of international antagonism and aggression.

In addition, China’s economic health sits in delicate balance with that of the United States, trading goods and money at record rates. If individual Americans and Chinese citizens find it difficult to communicate through the Internet, that becomes another unnecessary block toward progress in business and cultural relations between the countries.

Five biggest fears about Internet censorship in China:

— The Chinese population will become belligerent toward the United States and the West, even as it reaps huge benefits from international trade and capitalism. Our economies are too closely linked to tolerate a largely ignorant or anti-American population.

— China’s people will not benefit fully from the ideas and perspectives on the Internet, and, may therefore become a burden to the rest of the world. We can already see how the nation’s rampant growth has used fossil fuels and belched pollution, and one can only wonder how much information about the consequences is reaching the Chinese public.

— Human rights abuses may go on unchecked in such a vast country with a history of repression through violence an imprisonment. When the Internet can bring down such a powerful U.S. politician as Trent Lott because of imprudent remarks about a racist colleague, what power could such a medium have in a country whose centrally controlled media are restrained by government?

— A nation whose people are not capable of widespread independent communication and thinking is vulnerable to anything its leaders might ask. That could include military support of such lethal regimes as North Korea and sale of weapons up to and including nuclear bombs to nations that could ultimately be brokers for terrorists.

— China’s enormous intellectual, natural and human resources could be lost as essential tools in helping to solve world problems if the nation is not fully opened to the free flow of international ideas through the World Wide Web.

— A bonus sixth fear: What’s to stop already emboldened national security officials in the United States from watching China and picking up subtle ways to monitor and limit certain Internet uses here that a back room committee deems improper?

Internet resources:

RConversation

Written by accomplished television journalist and journalism professor Rebecca MacKinnon, RConversation comes to the reader from Hong Kong, where MacKinnon is a professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre. She also is leading Creative Commons Hong Kong on the Internet and is strongly interested in the mainland’s censorship issues as well as news and current events. Her blog is a strongly written and designed source of news about China and Chinese media, including the Internet, that seems carefully crafted and frequently updated.

Status of Chinese People

Published by Henry Liu, a Chinese citizen living in the West, to open Chinese problems to the world, this blog aggregates various news reports from such sources as Reporters Without Borders, major news organizations and independent investigators. In addition to reports about general everyday life in China, the site emphasizes censorship and monitoring of the Internet and Internet users. This article shows how the nation finds excuses to crack down on Internet cafes.

Sinobyte – CNET’s blog about technology’s impact on China

Sinobyte, a product of mainstream computer publication CNET, offers excellent coverage of Internet censorship in China, although it is not updated frequently. The items available include stories about personal experiences with Chinese intervention with individual computer use to coverage of censorship on such sites as iTunes and GoDaddy.

China Digital Times

Supported by the Graduate School of Journalism at University of California, Berkley, China Digital Times offers perhaps the most wide-ranging and lively aggregation of stories and commentary, video and written, about censorship, media and online stories making the headlines in China.

The blog contains some original video, such as this interview with Hong Kong University journalism professor Ying Chan on her book about censorship. The reader feels that this site won’t miss an important story that’s happening on the digital front in China.

CNN.com China and Internet Censorship

A simple and cleanly laid out CNN multimedia presentation that gives an excellent explanation of the issues involved with China’s censorship of the Internet. In simple terms it shows the elaborate censorship methods and the tenacious means people are using to circumvent those methods.

“Race to the Bottom”
Corporate Complicity in Chinese Internet Censorship

This is a highly detailed and useful report from Human Rights Watch on ways that major corporations assist the Chinese government in the world’s most elaborate system of Internet censorship. Whether by rule of law or lure of money, these companies have found reasons to become a part of a problem rather than a solution.

This quote is but a fraction of the extensive useful information found that includes technical and ethical aspects of the situation:

“In fact, China’s system of Internet censorship and surveillance is the most advanced in the world. While tens of thousands of people are employed by the Chinese government and security organs to implement a system of political censorship, this system is also aided by extensive corporate and private sector cooperation—including by some of the world’s major international technology and Internet companies. In China, the active role of censor has been extended from government offices into private companies.”

Recommendations for solutions:

— The online community and international trade ministers must put pressure on companies like Google, which allow China to censor elements of their search engines. If Google and its colleagues don’t take a stand against censorship, very few other organizations will be strong enough. And that will keep the Chinese from knowing more about the free world.

— Governments and international-relations groups should continue to enlist the West’s smartest hackers to invent workaround solutions for China’s Internet users. Just as Radio Free Europe opened the airwaves behind the Iron Curtain a generation ago, modern efforts through software programs and third-party servers must be seen as an electronic Berlin Airlift of sorts to open channels of unfettered Web access. Individuals, likewise, can and should seek out access to those servers and software to make their own inroads.

— Invite Chinese leaders to a summit involving India, Japan, the United States and heavily wired European countries to show best practices and best results from open and free-flowing Internet use. And offer incentives through trade programs in exchange for China’s cooperation.

Scrambling for every last vote

October 30, 2008

Six days and counting until the election. I think I’ll vote Friday and get it over with.

I just watched Obama’s infomercial tonight and thought it was a great use of the television medium.

He has so much money to spend that he has become ubiquitous on the Internet as well. It seems like every site I pull up calls up an ad of Obama looking into the future with a presidential demeanor.

Do I feel a little bit like the man is beginning to dominate my life? Maybe. But that goes with the territory of being a political junkie.

It all seemed so entertaining a month ago, until we added that layer of sheer terror now called the financial meltdown. It now seems that we really don’t have a president, an active plan or an active economy with any sense of direction.

My mom, born in the Great Depression, says this is a time to “hunker down.”

As it gets colder outside, that’s just what I plan to do.

Kirk Hathaway’s Descriptive Eye

October 4, 2008

Kirk Hathaway’s site, Descriptive Eye, can be elliptical and inscrutable in some ways, but, like much art, its overall impression is one of a person trying to use all his creative abilities to learn about himself and help others learn about themselves as well. 

I truly appreciate art, fiction and music, but because my training as a journalist has so dominated my life, I tend to regiment my thinking and writing into a logical plane without a lot of ambiguity. 

Kirk’s site shows where a little ambiguity in writing and art in general can enhance the process, even if your final goal is a newspaper article. 

This passage is especially interesting to me:

“Following a life-changing accident which resulted in “mild but significant brain injury”  and concerned with changes in his verbal skills and memory, Kirk Hathaway shifted his work slightly so that along with the products of the creative impulse, he began recording the process of that creation.  Also, in his teaching, he required a portfolio that portrayed the development of each prose work a student created.”

Its philosophy offers elements of some of the post-graduate writing seminars I’ve had, including those at the Poynter Institute in Florida, which, in my mind, has the finest curriculum for writers and journalists in the nation. One of the instructors there, Chip Scanlon, promotes “free writing” as a way for writers to loosen their thoughts. It involves writing anything about a subject that comes to mind for a set period of time. It’s designed to flush what’s in the unconscious brain out onto the page. And it can guide the writer to find what’s missing. 

So I applaud Kirk for his approach to writing. I’ve always felt the writing process is one-part training and calculation and one part “diving in” to uncharted waters.

Evaluate blogs the careful reader’s way

October 4, 2008

A good way to learn how to evaluate new media web sites and blogs is to start with old media. You’ll learn a lot about the limitations of the old and the dangers and freedoms of the new.

Start with the difference between cable news coverage of politics and blog coverage. 

Sure, they overlap, especially when blogs offer TV clips, or when cable channels populate their panels with major blog editors. 

But in almost all ways, a reader who is interested in balance and deeper coverage can set up a routine through blog filters or his own critical abilities.

Television gives the impression of being complete, while it remains largely under the control of producers and the viewer’s ability to remain tuned in for long periods. An Internet reader can make short work of a regimen of sites — or delve deeply for hours — depending on his interest level.

The differences are that television can remain a shallow medium, while the Internet can become consuming and the undisciplined reader finds it difficult to sort out the news.  

I try to keep a system for researching almost all major news stories and I recommend it for anyone, especially when covering the complex and lightning-fast campaign of 2008.

When CNN offers a four-person panel, opinions echo around the screen for six minutes until its members start yelling over one another or the anchor cuts them off. Yet, those same people are remarkably composed or at least capable of clarity on their own Web sites. 

For me, this makes evaluating blogs for myself and following my hunches an enjoyable experience. But first, I always start with something like CNN online to see a straight news feed.

Some elements of that feed can’t be trusted, however. Quick audience polls can’t be counted on, for example, because they rarely represent a true cross-section of voters. 

Joel Berg wrote in the article Now Everyone’s a Pollster in the journal Politics (Campaigns & Elections), Sep. 2008, Vol. 29 Issue 9, p66-66: 

“the results of online surveys skew toward the views of online regulars, who tend to be more affluent and educated. But as companies learn more about who’s on the Web and where, the better the results will become.”

 My next stop is typically The Huffington Post for a more tabloid, left-leaning perspective. From there, I can either choose one of the dozens of columns, such as Gene Sperling’s column taking issue with the Washington Post’s analysis of Biden’s discussion of the McCain health plan. 

After that, I’ll hop over to The National Review, a conservative site, to see what the scuttlebutt there is. Then I’ll perhaps delve into the edgier sites that may or may not be accurage, such as the Taylor Marsh site. 

When a reader has a system with careful criteria, evaluating blogs becomes second nature. Without understanding how they are structured, what their biases are, the reader falls prey to spin or errors. Safety means starting with a foundation of proven news reportage.

It’s the same thing the careful reader of books, newspapers or magazines would do.