The pace and accessibility of political journalism in the US has been transformed by the internet, according to a recent report by The Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet.

The Virtual Trail, published in October 2002, looks at how political journalists use the internet and how it has changed their traditional working practices.

The report bases its findings on questionnaires completed by 271 political journalists, three quarters of which have been professional for more than 10 years. Forty-one respondents were also interviewed for the study, identifying the most useful web-based resources and explaining their methods and work patterns.

Overall, the study concluded that journalists have access to more information from more diverse sources, making them much better informed.

One third of respondents spend at least two hours every day on web research. Journalists with less internet experience tend to use the web passively, retrieving campaign newsletters, press releases and general research. Only a small proportion took advantage of interactive functions such as chat-rooms, video libraries and more complex search engines.

Three quarters of respondents said that they were sometimes overwhelmed by email, with a quarter receiving at least 50 emails per day. Campaign newsletters are a contributing factor - journalists need to sign up for them but this both increases their email load and often leads to unwanted junk email.

Political journalists now benefit from substantial web-based resources. For example, finding information on campaign funding used to require painstaking research at institutions such as the public records office of the Federal Election Commission. As Jonathan Salant, veteran reporter of 25 years for the Press Association, says: "Now I can call up the centre's site, plug in the congressman's name, and hit a button."

The report lists the respondents' top 10 most popular web sites. Top of the list is the The Centre for Responsive Politics which provides impartial analysis of campaign funding and is often the source of many major news stories. Its success highlights the need to improve transparency and ethical standards in political campaigns.

This equally applies to political journalists. Although codes of ethical practice have been drawn up by most major publishers, not all are easily translated to the internet. Journalists in the report expressed a range of opinions on identification of sources and online contacts in particular, though they generally agreed that they should identify themselves in an online discussion. The report quotes advice from The Poynter Institute that "truthful telling is enhanced by truthful newsgathering", advocating respect for the privacy of other people's "electronic persona" when online.

Many journalists were critical of the practice of email interviews, citing the need to interact with the interviewee. Muriel Dobbin of McClatchy Newspapers says: "It is possible to do a great deal without leaving the office. The result is a loss of human drama, like talking by telegram. It's absolutely sterile." Only 3 per cent of respondents found email interviewing useful, usually with specific subjects. However, Knight-Ridder reporter Carl Cannon said he "very often" uses the web to conduct interviews, particularly with academics, and often finds responses by email "more thoughtful and eloquent".

Email has proved to be a simple but secure method of connecting with readers. Larger publications have generally been slower to advertise the email addresses of individual journalists, but Stephen Thomma, chief political correspondent for Knight-Ridder Newspapers, soon realised that collating responses from readers allowed him to build up a panel of around 35 citizens, providing him with valuable voter opinion. "I find that people who respond are often very thoughtful ," he said.

The most exciting aspect of web-based journalism has to be the style that the medium demands - "fast, informal, speculative and ephemeral", the report summarises. The internet has provided professionals with an immediate and international resource, but also makes this available to a new younger, generation of political junkies. "Younger people are more inclined to read things that are less formal, and the informal style can accommodate serious political reporting," says Mark Halperin, director of ABC's political unit.

Traditional journalism has been challenged by the informality of the internet. Message boards and chat rooms, for example, put web users in control of their content - a structure that is at odds with the traditional editorial control of the news profession. The report concludes that all these developments are positive and that journalists will continue to benefit from the internet as they become more technically competent.

"Journalists have a special role in our democracy - to supply voters with accurate, impartial and complete information on which to base their choices in the voting booth. We believe the online environment has increased the amount of reliable information voters receive from journalists."

Principal author Albert L May ( is associate professor and journalism director at The George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs, with more than 20 years' experience as a reporter and editor. Established at the George Washington University (, the Institute aims to promote the development of US online politics in a manner which upholds democratic values.

The Virtual Trail contains useful advice for online journalists including a glossary of internet terms, suggestions for research techniques and a code of ethics. Full report at

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