Web-only Online Sites More Likely to Post Editorial Policies Than Are Daily Paper Sites
Cassidy, William P
An increasing number of Americans obtain their news via the Internet.1 However, some media critics, scholars and journalists have expressed reservations about the credibility of online news because of concerns about the high speed at which a story can be posted online2 and the linking of news content with advertising.3 Johnson and Kaye believe that lack of trust in information obtained from the Internet could keep it from becoming an even more important and influential news source.4 To address these concerns about the credibility of Internet information, noted online media critics such as Steve Outing and J. D. Lasica have called for Internet news sites to publish statements disclosing to users the standards and values of the sites, as well as information explaining how the corporate relationships of the newsgathering organization relate to editorial coverage.5
This exploratory study uses content analysis to examine the Web sites of daily newspapers, as well as Web-only news sites, for the presence of such information, referred to by Outing as “credibility statements.”6
Credibility Concerns of Online News
The Internet allows journalists to post information almost as soon as they receive it, a quality seen by many journalists as having a positive impact on the profession.7 However, Lasica alleges this ability heightens the traditional competition among journalists to be the first to report a story and makes errors more common.8 A recent study found a majority of journalists said the Internet has increased the amount of errors in news stories9 and a study of online newspaper editors found that nearly half said the speed of the Internet has decreased the time spent verifying facts in news stories.10
In addition, the public feels that maintaining a clear separation between editorial and advertising content is important.11 However, news sites often put related advertisements adjacent to articles.12 Linking articles to commerce, according to McNamara, is more powerful online than in print. A print advertisement requires a reader to visit a store to make a purchase, but online users simply have to click on a link.13
Another aspect of “transaction journalism” includes the formation of alliances in which an outside company sponsors an entire content area.14 The relationship between a news site and its advertisers is even more difficult for readers to understand when sponsorships are related to editorial content15 and such sponsorships can compromise a site’s credibility.16
The mixing of editorial content and e-commerce, says Outing, “represent serious threats to a journalistic entity’s credibility with the public.”17 News organizations, he says, need to publicly post editorial policies clearly explaining the relationships they have with other companies and how those relationships impact their editorial coverage. Lasica agrees, noting that in this age of cynicism regarding the media, the public declaration of a news site’s principles would send a powerful message and help gain public trust.18 Online media executives interviewed by McNamara said they believe that because the Internet is an evolving medium it is more difficult for online readers to recognize the line separating commerce from content, a sentiment that is confirmed in a study conducted by the Online News Association.19 Byrd writes that links explaining news decisions and policies would give notice that news sites are accountable to their readers.20 Outing also writes it is vital for news sites without a traditional media counterpart to publish their policies to boost their reputation. Such news sites, he says, don’t have the luxury of relying on the reputation of “an old media parent.”21 Sites with traditional counterparts would be well-served by publishing their policies, given that journalistic standards can differ within a single news organization.22
To what extent are daily newspaper Web sites and Web-only news sites posting statements regarding their editorial policies?
Are Web-only news sites more likely than daily newspaper sites to post statements regarding their editorial policies?
What types of information are contained in statements regarding the editorial policies of daily newspaper Web sites and Web-only news?
A total of 196 news sites were content analyzed (111 daily newspapers and 85 Web-only news sites). The online editions of the top 100 daily U.S. newspapers by circulation based on March 31, 2004, figures were made part of the sampling frame as were the top papers in the 11 states not represented in the top 100. The Google search engine was used to generate the Web-only portion of the sample,23 supplemented with sites that were finalists for the 2000-2003 Online Journalism Awards.24
Several online media critics, most notably Outing and Lasica, suggest six criteria that should be included in editorial policy statements:25
* A set of guiding journalistic principles
* An employee code of conduct
* Standards for separating editorial content from advertising
* Information stating the news sites’ business relationships.
* Information disclosing how those business relationships relate to editorial coverage.
* Information disclosing corporate parentage26
The unit of analysis was the “home page” of each site.27 The author served as the primary coder of the study.28
Table 1 shows that 118 (60.2%) of the sites analyzed posted information satisfying at least one of the six criteria. Web-only news sites were significantly more likely (68%) than daily newspaper sites (54%) to do so (p=.05).
Nearly 90 percent of the sites posting information concerning their editorial policy disclosed their corporate parentage. More than half discussed journalistic principles and one-third disclosed their business relationships. The other criteria were less likely to be posted (Table 2).
There were significant differences between the two groups regarding their implementation of several of the criteria. Web-only news sites were more likely to post information about journalistic principles (p
The overall mean number of criteria implemented was 2.0. For Webonly news sites the mean was 2.36, while for daily newspapers the mean was 1.65 (p
This study found that more than half of the sites analyzed do provide some degree of information regarding their editorial policies. However, several of the criteria deemed necessary for inclusion were hardly addressed. Most Internet news sites do not provide information concerning employee conduct, the influence of business relationships on editorial content or standards for separating editorial content from advertising. The lack of information regarding the latter criterion is disturbing, given that this is one of the leading concerns of the online journalism community.29
Web-only news sites are more likely to post information concerning editorial policies. One explanation for this is that since they can’t rely on the established reputation of an “old-media parent,” Webonly news sites must create their own.
The results presented here provide some indication of the evolving gatekeeping role of journalists. Singer says journalists in the online environment realize the increased role of the audience and see their role in the gatekeeping process as one of credibly interpreting the large amount of information now available to news consumers.30 Similarly, Kovach and Rosenstiel believe that because of the Internet journalists no longer decide what the public should know; instead they are helping audiences make order out of it.31 The presence of statements publicly disclosing editorial policies offers some evidence that news organizations, particularly those without traditional media counterparts, are explicitly acknowledging that adjustment.
1. Vin Crosbie, “Weak Online Economies Threaten Quality of All Journalism, Pew Study Finds,” Online Journalism Review, 7 March 2004, (22 March 2004); Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Public’s News Habits Little Changed by September 11,” 9 June 2002, (30 May 2004).
2. See Ann Brill, “Online Journalists Embrace New Marketing Function,” Newspaper Research Journal 22, no. 2 (2001 ): 28-40; Also see Stan Ketterer, “Teaching Students How to Evaluate and Use Online Resources,” journalism and Mass Communication Educator 52, no. 4 (1998): 4-14; Thomas Ruggiero, “Perceptions of Traditional American Journalists Towards the Internet as a News Source: A Critical Approach.” (paper presented at the annual AEJMC conference, Baltimore, August 1998).
3. See Bruce Koon, “Journalistic Credibility Online vs. E-commerce,” Online News Association Web Site, 15 May 2000, (30 May 2004); Also see J. D. Lasica, “A Credibility Gap for Online News?” Online Journalism Review, 16 December 1998, (31 May 2004); Tracy McNamara, “Defining the Blurry Line Between Commerce and Content,” Columbia Journalism Review 31 (July/August 2000): 31-35
4. Thomas Johnson and Barbara Kaye, “Cruising is Believing? Comparing Internet and Traditional Media Sources on Media Credibility Measures,” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 75, no. 2 (1998): 325-340.
5. J. D. Lasica, “So, If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It,” American Journalism Review, October 1998, (31 May 2004); Steve Outing, “Online Journalism: Hiive Wo Arrived Yet? F.ditor &- Publisher, 22 March 2000 (1 April 2002).
6. Outing, “Online Journalism: Have We Arrived Yet?”
7. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Today’s Changing Newsroom: Bottom-Line Pressures Now Hurting Coverage,” 23 May 2004, (24 May 2004).
8. J.D. Lasica, “The Fuzzy World of Sponsored Content,” Online journalism Revinv, 17 April 2002, (30 May 2004)
9. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, “Today’s Changing Newsroom.”
10. David Arant and Janna Quitney Anderson, “Newspaper Online Editors Support Traditional Standards,” Neivspaper Rcsearcli journal 22, no. 4 (fall 2001): 57-69.
11. Online News Association, ” Digital Journalism Credibility Study” 2002, (1 June 2004); Princeton Survey Research Associates, “A Matter of Trust: What Users Want from Web Sites,” January 2002, (2 June 2004).
12. McNamara, “Defining the Blurry Line Between Commerce and Content.”
14. J. D. Lasica, “Preserving Old Ethics in A New Medium,” American journalism Revinv 19, no. 10(1997)52.
15. Online News Association, “Digital Credibility Study.”
16. Lasica, “The Fuzzy World of Sponsored Content.”
17. Outing, “Online Journalism: Have We Arrived Yet?”
18. Lasica, “A Credibility Gap for Online News?”
19. McNamara, “Defining the Blurry Line Between Commerce and Content,” Online News Association, “Digital Credibility Study.”
20. Joann Byrd, “Online Journalism Ethics: A New Frontier,” American Society of Newspaper Editors, 22 March 1996, (1 June 2004).
21. Outing, “Online Journalism: Have We Arrived Yet?”
22. Project for Excellence in Journalism, “The State of the News Media 2004: An Annual Report on American Journalism,” (31 May 2004)
23. Since no compiled listing of Web-only news sites exists, the sites chosen were those which appeared on the first page of the Google news directory, as well as those appearing on the first page of three news subcategories: (1) analysis and opinion; (2) breaking news, and; (3) politics.
24. The Online Journalism awards, sponsored by the Online News Association have categories for stories produced by independent Websites not owned or affiliated with organizations that own television stations, newspapers, magazines of radio stations.
25. Koon, “Journalistic Credibility Online vs. E-commerce”; Lasica, “So, If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It”; Lasica, “The Fuzzy World of Sponsored Content”; McNamara, “Defining the Blurry Line Between Commerce and Content”; Outing, “Online Journalism: Have We Arrived Yet?”
26. Examples of the criteria are available from the author on request. Since this is an exploratory study, a site was coded as having fulfilled any one of the criteria even if it only provided basic information.
27. Louisa Ha and Lincoln James, “Interactivity Re-examined: A Baseline Analysis of Early Business Web sites,” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 42, no. 3 (1998): 457474.
28. To determine intercoder reliability, 40 sties (approximately 20%) were coded by a second trained coder. Using Scott’s pi, the level of agreement was .89
29. Koon, “Journalistic Credibility Online vs. E-commerce,”; Lasica, “The Fuzzy World of Sponsored Content,”; McNamara, “Defining the Blurry Line Between Commerce and Content”; Outing, “Online Journalism: Have We Arrived Yet?”
30. Jane B. Singer, “Still Guarding the Gate: The Newspaper Journalist’s Role in an On-line World,” Convergence: The Journal of Research Into New Media Technologies 3, no. 1 (1997): 72-89.
31. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, The Elements of Journalism, (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001).
Cassidy is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater.
Copyright Newspaper Research Journal, Department of Journalism, University of Memphis Winter 2005
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