Future Journalists' Online Use for Information Gathering:
The Internet as a Secondary Route for Newsgathering
Graduate Education Interest Group
AEJMC 2003 Convention
School of Journalism
College of Communication
University of Texas-Austin
Mailing Address: 3371 Lake Austin Blvd. Apt. D. Austin, TX 78703
Telephone: (512) 236-8043
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Future Journalists' Online Use for Information Gathering:
The Internet as a Secondary Route for Newsgathering
"The Internet is changing communication in some fundamental ways,
including the permitting of much greater interactivity between the
communicator and the user" (Severin and Tankard 2001, p. 384).
We have been hearing about the changing nature of communications and
journalism repeatedly since the emergence of the Internet. The wide spread
of the technology made people think the world, which journalists are
covering, is dramatically adjusting itself to the new phenomenon (Shoemaker
and Reese, 1996; Houston, 1999; Quinn, 1999; Shapiro, 1999). According to
Home Computers and Internet Use in the United States: August 2000 on the
U.S. Census Bureau's Web site
(http://www.census.gov/prod/2001pubs/p23-207.pdf), U.S. households with
Internet access increased from 18.0% in 1997 to 41.5% in 2000 (p. 1). While
journalists are covering the new phenomenon, the nature of journalism is
believed to be modifying itself drastically. Severin and Tankard stated,
"In a sense, it redefines our concept of mass communication" (2001, p. 384).
This notion became common knowledge in and outside of the field of
journalism, and people seem to accept this as a given. We do not know,
however, how much influence the Internet has on journalism. We do not know
clearly in what directions it leads journalism, either. In particular, the
impact of the Internet on the individual journalists does not seem to have
been studied widely. Although we have some quantitative approaches to
determine the impact on journalists (Garrison, 2001), we are not so sure if
those approaches show the real amount or the clear direction of online
services' impact on journalists (Perlman, 1998; Shapiro, 1999). Very few
qualitative research projects on this topic have been conducted.
This qualitative paper attempts to help fill in some of the gaps in the
understanding of online services' impact on journalism, especially the
methods of journalists' newsgathering. Observing closely the journalism
students who wrote weekly news stories for about three months, I, the
researcher, tried to discover whether the online services really have an
impact on journalists' information gathering. I tried also to explain how
they use online sources, what kinds of sources they usually use, and what
the conveniences and difficulties are in using online sources. At the same
time, this paper will examine whether this new technology can be an agenda
setter of the mainstream media, based on its allegedly more obvious
cost-effectiveness, convenience and interactivity compared to the
traditional newsgathering methods (Severin and Tankard, 2001; Reisch,
2001). Even though the findings of this study cannot be easily generalized
because of the characteristics of qualitative approaches (Lindlof, 1995;
Potter, 1996; Denzin and Lincoln, 1994; Hamilton, 1994), they could give
some ideas of how journalists will use online features in the future, and
what the impact of the Internet on journalism will be, or even already is.
In this section, I will discuss briefly an empirical effort and some
arguments to try to clarify the assumed Internet impact on journalism,
which will be followed by an explanation about some previous attempts to
introduce the Internet as a potential agenda setter of mass media. Pointing
out these earlier approaches' insufficiently explanatory roles regarding
the systemic Internet effect on journalism, I will designate four online
sites with which I will explore whether the Internet or online services
influence journalists' newsgathering processes.
Arguments for Internet Impact on Journalism
According to Garrison, among the U.S. daily newspapers with 20,000 and
larger circulation, only 57.2% used the online sources for newsgathering in
1994. The percentage, however, increased to 92.0 in five years (2001). His
study shows that the percentage of newsrooms using the Internet/World Wide
Web increased from 25.0 to 93.2, while the percentage of newsrooms using
the Usenet newsgroups and bulletin boards decreased from 21.1 to 17.0 and
from 35.6 to 19.3 during the same period, respectively. His study is one of
the most prominent ones regarding usage of online sources in the newsroom,
because it presents figures on how much newspeople used online features in
newsgathering; this information had not previously been clearly shown in
such a way. But, unfortunately, he did not go further, to determine how
effectively reporters use such features. As is the case in many
quantitative studies, his study did not explain the finer details. For
example, he did not identify specific factors influencing newspeople's
online usage in his study, such as why they use such features as the World
Wide Web, bulletin board systems, etc., or what the difficulties are in
using such features, and so forth.
His study is not the only one to miss such important details. Many other
scholars stress the importance of the Internet not only in the
newsgathering process but also in its possible impact on democracy (Sikes,
1994; Williams and Pavlik, 1994; Shapiro, 1999; Aikat, 2000; Pavlik, 2001),
but their arguments look too general to reveal the Internet's specific
roles in journalists' information gathering or to direct us to better ways
of using online resources.
Internet as a Potential Agenda-Setter of Mass Media
Besides some quantitatively empirical research studies including
Garrison's studies, there are some theoretical approaches to explain the
impact of the Internet on journalism. One of them is the agenda-setting
theory. Extended versions of agenda-setting theory show some of those
noteworthy attempts to elucidate such Internet phenomena. As the
agenda-setting theory was developed inside of its own discipline of
journalism and communication (Winter and Eyal, 1981; Iyengar and Kinder,
1987; Ghanem, 1997; McCombs et al., 2000; McCombs and Ghanem, 2001) and was
expanded to various fields including psychology (Weaver, 1977; Poindexter
et al., forthcoming), economics (Blood and Phillips, 1997), political
science, sociology and so forth (Schudson, 1995; Shoemaker and Reese, 1996;
Roberts, 1997; Perloff, 1998; Graber, 2000) from McCombs and Shaw's seminal
work (1972), the Internet came to be known as a possible source to set the
media agenda through either its own content or through other activities
connected to the Internet, such as civic movements (Shapiro, 1999;
Sampedro, 2000; Sunstein, 2001). Writing succinctly on this matter, a
German scholar Reisch stated, "Due to its cost-effectiveness,
user-orientation speed and interactiveness, the new media could become an
important agenda setter" (2001, p. 7). According to Reisch, this new
technology seems to be an additional tool for influencing the media's news
However, most of the studies about the Internet effects on journalism thus
far have not explicitly argued for a clear impact of the Internet as an
agenda setter on the field of mass communications, including journalists'
newsgathering. Even scholars like Reisch, who used the term "Internet
agenda setting," were suspicious of declaring an obvious Internet influence
because of some problems like information overload, and lack of reliability
and credibility (2001). Furthermore, journalists' Internet usage does not
seem to be frequently studied as one of the general Internet impact
studies, although the mass communicators are the ones who write the news,
one of the core targets of journalism research.
In view of the inadequate studies of how journalists use the Internet for
information gathering, this study sets out four main fields - BBS (bulletin
boards system), AMLS (automatic mailing list servers), WWW (the world wide
web), and E-mail - to get a clearer comprehension about where journalists
go for news ideas and facts online and how they use that information for
their stories. The next section will explain how and why these four types
of sites were selected for this study.
Four Online Sites, Routes of Internet Impact on Journalists' Information
I chose and set up these four categories, based on textbooks and the
arguments of two journalism education experts, Brant Houston and Stephen
Quinn, and of one of the online public relations specialists, Shel Holtz.
Because they are teaching journalists how to gather information online and
looking at how people deal with journalists through online features, I
believe their arguments can be directly related to future journalists'
online information gathering. Taking some suggestions from their own
definitions of those four categories, I set a new, but not quite different,
conceptualization for this study. The Webopedia, an online dictionary for
computer and Internet terms, will be used for the initial or basic
definitions of those four sites. PC Magazine, an internationally acclaimed
computer specialty magazine, introduced this online dictionary as one of
the top 100 Web sites for search and reference functions and described it
as "the only online dictionary and search engine for computer and Internet
technology" (PC Magazine, 2002). The definitions given by the Webopedia
were retrieved from its Web site (http://www.pcwebopedia.com) during
November and December of 2002.
BBS (bulletin board system)
Aikat, quoting the Webopedia, defined a Bulletin Board System (BBS) as "an
electronic message center on the Internet…They allow you to review messages
left by others, and leave your own message if you want" (p. 60). The online
dictionary defines a newsgroup as the "same as forum, an on-line discussion
As described in the Webopedia, a BBS includes three similar features – the
bulletin board system, newsgroups and discussion groups. These share the
characteristics of a "free message posting and viewing function without
need for authority, obligatory registration, and subscription in order to
discuss certain issues openly."
I noted that Houston explained the discussion group as the place where
only qualified participants can join (1999, p. 133), which is somewhat
different from how the term is conceptualized here. But I put the
discussion group in the category of BBS, because generally discussion
groups have the same function of sharing information without any obligation
according to most other definitions I found (Holtz, 1999; Quinn, 1999).
AMLS (automatic mailing list server)
I categorize the second online site for journalists' newsgathering as the
automatic mailing list server or AMLS. The Webopedia defines the mailing
list server as "a server that manages mailing lists for groups of users."
Basically, the Webopedia relates most of its definitions to computer or
electronic characteristics, so I have borrowed the Webopedia's concept of a
mailing list server and use it for AMLS in this paper.
The concept above is similar to some experts' definition of listserv
(Houston, 1999; Quinn, 1999; Holtz, 1999), but I decided to use AMLS
instead of listserv, because the latter can be confused with a company's
commercial automatic mailing list server product, LISTSERV. In addition,
there are other kinds of software including Majordomo, a freeware, which
have the same function. AMLS does not include only the commercial LISTSERV
but also all of the other devices that have the same functions.
Based on Webopedia's initial definition and some experts' concepts, I
define the AMLS as the Internet server managing mailing lists and sending
messages only to the individuals on the list, and the place where
registered individuals can exchange their ideas via a collective e-mail
system. This paper, however, emphasizes exchanging ideas (content factor)
more than sending and receiving collective e-mails (technical factor),
since it focuses mainly on how journalists deal with the information online
(the content), rather than how an exchange system (the technique) works.
WWW (World Wide Web)
The World Wide Web, here, includes Houston's term of database libraries
(1999) and Quinn's Uniform Resource Locators or URLs (1999). Borrowing an
explanation from the Webopedia, I use the WWW as a system of Internet
servers that support specially formatted documents like HTML (Hyper Text
Markup Language), which carries links to other documents, as well as
graphics, audio and video files. In a large sense, Quinn's search engine
can be included here (1999). In this paper, the terms "WWW" and "Web site"
have the same meaning.
E-mail is the mail sent and received electronically by modem or computer
network systems, just as conventional mail is sent and received through
postal services. For a better explanation, Webopedia's definition, "Short
for electronic mail, the transmission of messages over communications
networks," might help. E-mail can be a direct information source for
journalists from the audience and human sources.
With these definitions, I will examine how future journalists use these
four online sites to gather information for their stories.
Methods and Settings
The main method for this study is participant observation, which is used
in combination with informal interviews. I observed the news reporting
activities of future reporters – college journalism students. Since the
journalism students participating in this study showed great interest in
becoming journalists, and they generally tried to use the Internet sources
for their news reporting, I believe that observing their activities offered
a great opportunity to anticipate how journalists would use the Internet
features in the near future. I will explain their qualifications as
subjects in detail later.
Although I understand that a qualitative observation cannot guarantee any
potential for generalization, I believe it is one of the most appropriate
ways to fill in the gaps that previous quantitative researchers left in
studying the impact of the Internet. Even though some quantitative studies
tried to show some general tendencies regarding newspeople's Internet
usage, represented by some percentages (Garrison, 2001), they did not give
details such as what advantages and disadvantages journalists encountered
while they used the Internet. Observing the actual news workers' daily or
weekly activities closely, I believe, can help explain the reasons behind
the various percentages quantifying journalists' usages of such online
features. Such observation can eventually help build a collective
understanding of online services' impact on journalists' newsgathering.
On the continuum between participation and observation (Jorgensen, 1989;
Lindlof, 1995; Geertz, 1973), this study was closer to observation than to
researcher participation. I was the subjects' editor, but I tried to avoid
interrupting the students' newsgathering activities by actively
participating in their work process, because that could have hurt the
latitude of their own work. I generally watched the subjects gathering
information online. I minimized my influence on their newsgathering through
the Internet by not directing them to use specific online features. I
answered only the questions that they asked me. I also asked them informal
questions for the purposes of the study if something curious and
interesting happened, as some researchers have recommended (Fontana and
Frey, 1994; Rubin and Rubin, 1995; Jenson, 2002). However, I tried to avoid
the possibility that such informal questions could influence their own
process of information gathering. I told them I would not intervene in
their newsgathering process when I asked them to be participants for this
study, and told them to do whatever they wanted to do for the information
gathering. However, I asked students to fill out 15 basic questions mainly
about their activities online, which were used to gather general background
information on their familiarity with the Internet.
At the same time, this study briefly examines the actual products of the
subjects' newsgathering activities – articles and reporting diaries. I was
concerned about possibly losing some important factors like the results of
newsgathering, by focusing on just one method of participant observation.
This is why I wanted to combine data like the subjects' written articles
with the participant observation results. Some scholars have pointed out
the advantage of a combination of research methods (Pauly, 1991; Potter,
1996), and I believe that examining the products will add more explanatory
power to the participant observation, and it can give more concrete and
in-depth comprehension about their information gathering habits from online
The subjects were a group of students enrolled in the Information
Gathering/Reporting/Editing class during the fall semester of 2002, a
required course mainly for journalism junior and senior students at a
Southwestern university. There are two prerequisite journalism courses for
this class. Passing the two prerequisite courses means that the students
are not just novices but have some necessary knowledge about journalism. In
the Information Gathering/Reporting/Editing class of fall 2002, students
were required to write at least 750 words (18 to 20 paragraphs), to use
around five interviewees in the story (but meet more than five people to
find the right sources who could be used in the story), and to spend about
a week to complete one story, thus requiring each student to write 12 news
articles for the whole semester.
I was one of the three teaching assistants for the class when the study was
conducted. My major roles were to consult with student reporters on story
ideas and to grade their stories. As an experienced reporter who spent more
than seven years in the field of newspaper journalism, both in the United
States and Korea, I helped student reporters write news stories. In short,
I was the future journalists' editor. There were 26 students in the two
labs under my supervision, and among them, I observed 10 students'
newsgathering activities for this study.
For the first month of the semester, I observed the students in order to
find proper subjects for this study. I found that these 10 students came to
the lab regularly, and I decided to utilize them for the study subjects.
Among them, three were seniors and seven were juniors. Each of them was
covering, respectively, crime and police, the College of Fine Arts of the
university, business and finance, public education (middle and high
school), the military in town, men's tennis, libraries, minorities (Asian
Americans), women's non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and the
gubernatorial campaigns (comptroller and land commissioner). For the
purpose of the class, every student was supposed to cover his or her own
They had to develop their own sources, dig out the story ideas, and write
articles in and about their beats. For example, the subject covering crime
and police had to meet police officers, with whom she had had no
acquaintance with before doing the reporting for the class. The men's
tennis beat reporter had to get ideas by reading journals, magazines and
Internet sources. The student covering elections had to go to the campaign
camps, meet the information officers and exchange e-mails with them to
write articles. No team work was allowed. Students had to do their work by
and for themselves.
Except for one student, who was 39 years old and had returned to school
with a variety of job experiences during 18 years, all the subjects were 19
to 25 years old. They happened to all be females. Actually, only four of
the 26 students in my labs were male, and they did not work at the lab
For this study, I used the open lab hours, which were 8 through 11 a.m. on
Wednesday and Thursday. I observed the students working at the lab in a
natural setting. They could come whenever they wanted to work at the lab
during the open lab hours. I tried to avoid an obligatory working
environment that might hurt the future reporters' own autonomy of
As mentioned above, I used their lab products, too. First, I looked at
their weekly news stories. I examined around 10 stories by each subject,
which were available at the time of this study. Therefore, the total number
of stories that I analyzed was about 100. I generally looked at how often
they cited Internet sources – electronic bulletin board system, automatic
mailing list servers, the World Wide Web and e-mails – in their stories.
Besides the weekly news stories, students had to submit a beat report every
other week. The beat report is a bi-weekly diary about their reporting
activities. On the beat report, they wrote whom they had met, what stories
they had completed, what stories they were working on, what nationwide
events or issues they were following for local stories, what publications
they were reading for story development, what stories they should follow
up, what interviews and contacts they were planning to make, and so on. In
the beat reports, they noted some online sources from which they got news
ideas, so I could follow where they went for ideas in online services.
Reading their beat reports, I was able to understand their plans to use
Internet sources. I used five beat reports by each subject.
I combined the participant observation results with the answers from the
questions that I gave them to fill out at the beginning of the project. The
results and the answers to the questions were fairly consistent, so I
decided to combine them to show their newsgathering trends from online
features. By observing the activities at the lab, and by perusing the
weekly stories and beat reports, I could come closer to understanding their
newsgathering habits through the Internet.
Results and Findings
This study shows that, generally, the assumption of the great impact of
the Internet on journalism may be quite exaggerated, at least in terms of
individual journalists' newsgathering activities. The interactivity and
cost-effectiveness that some scholars posited as advantages of using the
Internet for newsgathering (Severin and Tankard, 2001; Reisch, 2001) did
not appear clearly in this study. In addition, the future journalists'
newsgathering and news writing do not seem to have changed dramatically or
fundamentally from traditional ways, as some scholars have expected
(Houston, 1999; Quinn, 1999; Severin and Tankard, 2001). Most of all, the
future journalists participating in this project used the online service
content or Internet features – BBS, AMLS, WWW and e-mail – not as primary
sources for their news stories, but as secondary routes. Sometimes they got
an idea from the Internet, but they did not believe everything they saw on
the Web. Even the Internet features sometimes gave wrong information, so
that the subjects were dissatisfied with its functioning and even
disappointed in the effectiveness of the Internet. The Internet features
might give some clues and convenience for reporting, but, at the same time,
they also caused some inconvenience like wasting time on the moot
possibility of getting e-mails returned, double-checking old data, and so
on. In this study, the Internet did not seem to alter some of the basic
methods of traditional news reporting – fact checking by telephone and
meeting sources in person.
From Participant Observation
Generally, the subjects had used the Internet for four to eight years,
according to their answers to the 15 preliminary questions at the beginning
of this project. They generally understand what the four features – BBS,
AMLS, WWW and e-mail –, the core parts of the study, stand for. I found
that, however, their inclination to use those features and the time they
spent in using them for news reporting were quite different from each other.
According to the subjects' answers to the preliminary questions, they used
the WWW and e-mail most frequently for their news reporting purposes. When
asked the proportions of using the four features, subjects said they used
the WWW and e-mail together for 80 to 100 %, while they used BBS and AMLS
together for about zero to 20 % of their news gathering. The percentages,
here, are of total time spent on newsgathering on the "Internet," not of
total time spent on newsgathering as a whole <See Table>.
By looking strictly at some figures presented in the table, we may assume
that the WWW and e-mail, not the BBS and AMLS, provide great efficiency for
the student reporters to gather information online. But the observation in
this study revealed that, not only the BBS and AMLS, but also the WWW and
e-mail did not work as efficient routes for the reporters to find enough
information for their news reporting and writing.
<Table: "Subjects' Usage of Online Features," based on their answers to the
* Newsletters; ** No answer
A: Business and Finance; B: College of Fine Arts; C: Crime and Police; D:
Gubernatorial Campaigns; E: Libraries; F: Men's Tennis; G: Military; H:
Minorities; I: Public Education; J: Women's NGO
I: Percentage of the usage of basic Internet features; II: Total hours of
Internet usage per story; III: Percentage of information from the Internet
in a story; IV: Total years of having used the Internet
Actual questions asked of subjects
I. What are the proportions of Internet usage in terms of the categories
below (on a 100 % scale)?
Bulletin Boards System, Listserv (Automatic Mailing List Server), Web
sites, E-mail, and Others (Please specify)
<EXAMPLE: Bulletin Boards System (30): Listserv (20): Web sites (20):
E-mail (15): Others (15): 30 + 20 + 20 + 15 + 15 = 100>
II. How long do you use the Internet to gather information for your news
story (hours of Internet usage per story)?
III. Roughly, what is the percentage of the information in your story that
you got from the Internet?
IV. When did you begin to use the Internet? (How long have you been using
On one Wednesday morning during the fall semester of 2002, the reporters
for the military and the finance beats came to the lab together. It was
about 8:30. The deadline was one day ahead. After saying hello to the TA,
they sat down in front of the computers side by side. I was sitting about
10 feet away from them. I could see and hear what they were doing and
saying. The military reporter promptly opened her e-mail. "Again" she
sighed, and then came to me:
Military reporter: No e-mail replied back to me. I think I have to go to
San Antonio to meet some people there.
Gunho: What is your story idea?
MR: Recruiting the reserves in town for the Gulf.
G: So, whom did you e-mail? How many? Why do you want to go to San Antonio?
MR: Bunch of people. Maybe five or six. I don't remember how many. But I
had nobody answer me. I better meet some people I know and ask them in
person. They might have some idea what is going on in our town and San Antonio.
G: Do you know the people you e-mailed?
MR: Not really. But I got their e-mail addresses from someone I already
know. I did it because I wanted to get a broader response for the story.
But I don't think it is going to work. For previous stories, I did the same
thing, but no one replied back, either. I explained I am a student
reporter, what I needed, where I got the e-mail address, and so on and so
forth. I don't think they believe me.
G: So, are you not going to use the e-mail any more?
MR: Well, maybe. But I don't know how effective it is.
Meanwhile, the finance reporter was looking for some statistical
information through the Internet. She looked somewhat exhausted, and
printed out some Web pages and wrote something down in her notebook. After
making some phone calls, they left the lab. It took about an hour for them
to surf the Internet, check e-mail, and make some phone calls. They did not
seem to get what they wanted, even by phone.
The military reporter was not the only one who was dissatisfied with
e-mail. After getting an e-mail reply, the crime and police reporter came
to me to ask a question:
Crime Reporter: I don't know how to deal with this. (She looked somewhat
Gunho: What happened?
CR: I sent an e-mail to a person to ask about the rape statistics in our
town. You know, I'm working on this story. She e-mailed me back without
answers to my question but with some notes that are not related to the
story. She looked angry.
Gunho: Tell me about it.
CR: O.K. She is the person who is known as one of the experts (on
government side) about rape. I asked if I could get some quotes about the
issue. I got some rape statistics from the Web site of the police
department. I wrote everything I got up to that time in my e-mail, I
explained who I am, and asked the expert's opinion. But in the e-mail back
to me, she never answered my questions but asked me where I got her e-mail
address, who told me that I could contact her. And she wrote she could not
talk to me about it.
Gunho: Why don't you go to her to ask questions in person? You can call her.
CR: No way. I asked her if I can drop by on my e-mail, but she replied
"no." And I could not even get her phone number from their Web site.
Actually I got her e-mail address from a police officer I know.
She had introduced herself as a student reporter working on a story for a
journalism class. That might have led the source to refuse her request,
because she might have thought that it was not her job to answer questions
from just some student. But her response seemed to discourage the student
reporter from using e-mail, at least, to public officials. She said, "I may
hang around the police stations more to get used to the faces. I don't
think I'll send e-mails to people who I do not know. But my question is, do
reporters in the field have enough time to hang around their beats all the
time? How can they use the e-mail, if they have to use it, effectively for
getting information from sources who they do not know well? Is it possible?"
The answer for her question might be that reporters in the field would
have spent enough time hanging around their sources before e-mailing them.
And they would tell sources the names of their media, which are usually
well known to the general public. But I could not assure that the name
salience of the medium itself could guarantee that the field reporters
would get the answer every time.
Another case in this study showed the hardships in building good-enough
relationships between reporters and sources. The men's tennis reporter, who
mainly used e-mail for her information gathering, said, "At least some
people sent me back e-mails, although it took some time. After building
some relationship with them through e-mails, we constantly talked to each
other through e-mail." But when asked how many times she could build such
relationships with others via e-mail, she answered "Maybe one out of 20 times."
World Wide Web
Generally, the first thing subjects did after they got into the lab was to
check their e-mail. The time spent to check e-mail depended on their
personality and their way of using the Internet features, but they seemed
to spend approximately 10 to 20 minutes. Most of the time, because they did
not get replies from their expected sources, they jumped to the Web sites
related to their beats to get some facts and quotes. But the Web sites
themselves sometimes did not look like perfect or even desirable sources
for the future reporters, either.
The public education reporter was the student who used the Web most
frequently. She reported that among the four possible online sources, she
relied for 85 % of her news story ideas on Web sites. She always asked me
questions as soon as she encountered something curious.
On a typical day of the semester, she came to the lab and opened the Web
site of the city's independent school district office. She sat about three
feet away from me. In less than three minutes, she yelled "Yes!" and came
to me as usual, and asked, "Can I go for this?"
Public Education Reporter: A program is running for some Spanish
departments in a few high schools in the district. I want to work on that.
Gunho: What is the program for?
PR: The program is helping students to get high skills.
G: Then, what does the program have to do with Spanish departments? Does
the program give more Spanish language courses? Or does it give some
advantages for Hispanic students in learning something?
PR: Well, I don't know. I better check it.
Then she went to the computer, and came back to me in three minutes.
PR: The program helps encourage students to apply to college.
G: Again, what does it have to do with Spanish departments? How can it help
the Spanish departments in terms of helping students get into colleges?
PR: The Web site does not tell it in detail.
G: Go back and check it. There should be some other hyperlinks where you
can get some facts.
I watched her struggling to find additional information. She clicked some
more links and went deeper into the Internet. She spent about 30 minutes,
while she came and went between me and the computer a few more times. Then
finally she said, "I will change my idea. I'll let you know later." She
could not find the necessary information for the news story. Her idea might
not have been good or important enough to be a news story. That might be
why she could not find any further information about it. But in a society
where the Hispanics make up more than 25% of the whole population
(http://recenter.tamu.edu/mreports/austin1.asp), such a program could be a
good news topic. At least, she seemed to believe so. And she seemed to have
thought the Web site could give her good information about it. But it did not.
She was not the only one who felt disappointed in Web sites' lack of clear
information. "It is hard to find the right Web sites. Search engines
sometimes led me to inappropriate sites," said the men's tennis reporter.
"Even after finding the Web sites, I still need more details for the
story." The reliability and credibility of the Web sites matter, as some
scholars have pointed out (Houston, 1999; Quinn, 1999; Reisch. 2001).
"The Web site is convenient, and I think it is the most useful among the
four categories that you mentioned," said the election campaign beat
reporter. "But at the same time, I do not believe all of them."
The 39-year-old women's NGO reporter thought exactly the same way about Web
sites. She always brought a cell phone, and made phone calls while she was
surfing Web sites, in order to check the accuracy of the information on the
Web sites. However, I saw her efforts to check the information accuracy
fail from time to time.
On one Thursday, she showed up at the lab with her large bag. She sat down
in front of a computer, checked e-mail, and began to surf the Internet. The
women's NGO reporter already had her idea for the next story, and tried to
find some human sources whom she could contact. Finding seemingly
appropriate sites, she picked up her cell phone from her bag and dialed.
Women's NGO reporter: (After a while) No one answered the phone, again!
This is the site that I tried to call the other day.
Then, she dialed another number. She was still looking at the same Web
site. And from the other phone number, she did not talk to anybody either.
No one answered.
WR: This is Thursday and 10 o'clock in the morning. How come doesn't
anybody answer the phone?
She e-mailed to the addresses that the NGO put on their Web site. She
looked at me and said, "I'm not sure if they are working." Then she jumped
to another Web site.
WR: What? The phone number is not working any more?
Gunho: What happened? What is the matter?
WR: You know, yesterday I tried to call the organization that runs the Web
site that I just e-mailed to. No one answered the phone yesterday. And I
tried to contact them today again, and same thing happens. And I found
another Web site that seems to relate to my story. But the phone number
appearing on the Web site is not working. What kind of people are they? Why
do they put the Web site on the Internet? I am wasting my time. I do not
think they are working on the Net.
Perhaps it was not her day. But she also mentioned that this was not the
only time she had the problem. She also pointed out that the reliability of
the information on Web sites, including statistical information and e-mail
addresses, were the things that she could not believe, because many of them
Besides e-mail and Web sites, some subjects mentioned the bulletin board
systems (crime and police reporter, business and finance reporter, and
men's tennis reporter) and search engines (College of Arts beat reporter)
as the things that made it difficult to use the Internet features. Some
said they could not use the BBS information, because it did not give any
identification of the message poster, even though the content of the
message looked quite reasonable. And the search engines, the election
campaign reporter said, led her to irrelevant or dead Web sites more than
Interestingly enough, however, most subjects still said they often used
Internet features as newsgathering tools. Except for the College of Fine
Arts beat reporter, who said she used the Internet as her information
source for at most 5 % of her whole news reporting activity, most subjects
said they got their information from the four Internet features for more
than 25 % of their stories <See Table>. But as some reporters mentioned,
those activities might be just for the general background information
gathering, not for the core parts of the news story. The men's tennis
reporter said, "Mainly, the core information comes from phone calling and
meeting in person, not from the Internet. Even though I use e-mail
frequently, the purpose of e-mailing is not different from the traditional
interview, and it took a lot more time than telephoning or going there."
BBS and AMLS
During the participant observation, I never witnessed the subjects' using
the BBS or AMLS in the lab, two of the four categories that I had developed
from three experts' textbooks and arguments. But some of the subjects
mentioned they had tried to use them, so I assumed that these two are not
places that the reporters never visit at all, but rather that they visit
rarely. Therefore, rather than not mentioning them at all, I decided to
report some notes that some of the subjects mentioned in the questions that
I had asked them to fill out at the beginning of this project. These notes
might show some clues as to how the reporters use these Internet features
and what difficulties they encounter when using them.
The crime and police reporter is one of the few who used the BBS. But she
complained about no replies or late replies. She wrote, "Bulletin boards
are the most difficult [sources that I can use]" because she sometimes
posted a message but never received a reply, or she got one after her story
was already finished.
The business and finance reporter pointed out the lack of source
credibility of information on the BBS. She said, "The bulletin board is the
category that I have most difficulties in getting information, because even
if there is information, there is often no source listed." She also
mentioned she could not trust the accuracy of the information listed on the
The men's tennis reporter mentioned it was almost impossible to check
facts in the messages posted on bulletin boards. "People use different
names when posting messages on bulletin boards, so it would be hard to
contact them or to find out if they actually are who they say they are."
Unfortunately, there was no clear indication as to what are the
difficulties in using AMLS. All I could get from the subjects was the fact
that there were some of them who used this Internet source. But they did
not mention the degree of usability of this source. Just half of the
subjects – the women's NGO reporter, the election campaign reporter, the
crime and police reporter, the military reporter, and the business and
finance reporter – used the AMLS. Meanwhile, six subjects – the election
campaign reporter, the public education reporter, the business and finance
reporter, the minority reporter, the crime and police reporter, and the
men's tennis reporter – used the BBS.
From the Subjects' Products
Even though the subjects used some Internet features frequently in the lab
and said they thought the Internet was a useful tool to gather information,
they did not seem to cite their Internet sources in their actual stories as
often as they said they used them.
Among the four Internet features, the WWW is the only Internet source
cited in the subjects' news articles. The subjects who mentioned Internet
information sources in their stories generally put the names of Web sites
or the organizations and institutions that ran the Web sites. For instance,
they put, "According to A__D's Web site…," "The State Web site reported…,"
"In the statistics released from the police department's Web site…" or
"T___, the organization's official Web site, said…" It seemed to be easier
for them to identify the names of the Web sites than those of the other
features – BBS, AMLS and e-mail.
Even though some of the subjects said that they had used e-mail more than
the WWW for their information gathering, I did not find any clear evidence
from articles by the subjects that they had gotten information from e-mail
interviews. It may be unnecessary to distinguish whether information came
from phone, face-to-face or e-mail interviews, because it will take up
limited space in the newspaper. However, having seen clear identification
of the interviewing method in actual news stories in real newspapers from
time to time, I was sorry not to have such identification of the e-mail
interview method in the subjects' articles. Bulletin board systems and the
automatic mailing list servers were never mentioned either.
Generally, the citation of Internet sources was not frequent, even though
subjects said they used them for up to 85 % of the whole information
gathering process <See Table>. More than half of the stories written by the
subjects did not have any citation of Internet sources, including the WWW.
Even in the stories with 20 paragraphs or so, where citations were clearly
stated, only one or two paragraphs mentioned Internet sources. The subjects
answered that they used the Internet generally more than 25 % and even up
to 85 % for their news stories in the questions that I had asked them to
fill out at the beginning of this research (The question was "Roughly, what
is the percentage of the information in your story that you got from the
Internet?") <See Table>. Considering their answers on the overall Internet
usage for information gathering, the amount of Internet citation in the
actual stories looks relatively small. It may be hard to quantify the
proportions of the paragraphs that use information from the Internet or Web
sites, because the information could be distributed into all parts of the
story. Nevertheless, seeing the number of citations of Internet sources in
the subjects' news stories and comparing them to their answers to the
questions, it was unclear whether their Internet sources were well
reflected in their stories. If quantitatively calculated, on a rough
assumption that each subject wrote 20 paragraphs per story (I used around
10 stories written by each of the 10 subjects), I expected, among the 2,000
paragraphs, to read 500 paragraphs related to information from Internet
sources because the subjects said they had used 25% of Internet sources to
gather information. However, the number of paragraphs containing Internet
citations was even far less than 250, the half of the expectation.
In the beat reports, the subjects' bi-weekly reporting diaries, they were
asked to indicate at least two special interest publications and/or reports
that they had read to get information related to their beats. These
publications could include online sources. Most of the subjects, however,
did not list online publications as their sources at all. Even in few cases
when subjects did put Internet sources, they just wrote titles of
publications like "espn.com" without describing specific information that
they got from the sources. In short, except for the crime and police
reporter, no subject indicated their Internet sources very specifically.
Thus, it was hard to know their use of online sources in general from the
The beat reports of the crime and police reporter, however, provided a
clue of how reporters use online sources. She mentioned at least one
Internet source in each beat report. She named PollingReport.com to find
information on public trust in police; the T__ Bankers Association Web site
for financial crime rates; Backlash, an online magazine, for information on
misappropriation cases of government funds; FBI.gov for rape statistics;
and so on. She mentioned most of the Internet sources in her stories.
Even though most subjects did not specify the names of their Internet
sources in their beat reports, I could get an idea about how the student
reporters might use online features from examining the crime and police
reporter's reports. Since she was just one out of 10 subjects, however, it
was not possible for me to find clear trends of their general Internet
source usage in their news reporting. The subjects never cited BBS and AMLS
in their beat reports.
In summary, the future reporters who are now learning reporting and
writing skills in a university-level journalism education class see the
Internet as one of the tools they can use for information gathering.
However, their expectation of being able to get credible and reliable
information from Internet features cost-effectively or conveniently is very
low. The possible interactivity through the Internet, especially through
e-mail, does not seem to guarantee a rosy future. From the ways the
subjects checked the facts found on the Internet, I discovered that
reporters use the Internet as a secondary or background source but not as
the primary source that they can use as the core part of their news
stories. They did not believe the information on Web sites at all times and
did not expect that people contacted by e-mail would reply promptly.
Instead, they called sources by phone or met with them in person after they
got some preliminary information from the online features. Therefore, it is
hard to expect that the Internet can change mass communication in
fundamental ways, at least the methods of journalists' news gathering, as
some scholars have expected (Severin and Tankards, 2001).
Convenience or Cost-Effectiveness
In terms of convenience or cost-effectiveness, the Internet does not seem
to show any clear advantage. Even though reporters can find some
information on the Internet, they have to confirm the facts. In addition,
information on the Internet is often not detailed enough. Information on
Web sites is often contradictory and this forces the reporter to spend more
time to find the right source. Government sites are not free from this
criticism. For example, the crime and police reporter found that the rape
rate of a city for a certain year on the FBI Web site and that on the
city's police department Web site are different from each other. Both were
official records and each department argued that its statistics were
correct and the other's were not. Additionally, the statistics that one
non-governmental organization had were different from the two official
departments' records. The reporter spent more than two weeks working to
confirm which statistics were correct but could not find that out. As a
result, she did not write her story with confidence. In this case, the
confusion was with the WWW, one of the most frequently used online features
among the four Internet sources mentioned in this study.
Looking at this case as well as some others, I could not say the Internet
has the advantage of convenience or cost-effectiveness. It could reduce the
time and money that a reporter would spend for going to a press conference
physically, finding previous records, or visiting other countries to
compare situations. But if the information online was not correct, it could
cost the reporter more time and money and could be less convenient. As seen
in the case above, convenience and cost-effectiveness are directly related
to the reliability and credibility of online information. As some subjects
mentioned about the BBS, the content on the bulletin boards was not
credible and reliable, so the reporters rarely used BBS and never cited any
comments from them. It might be too early or too bold to apply the case of
the BBS to the WWW, but there might be some points we should think about
regarding this trend as this study has indicated.
The reality of e-mail usage shown in this study shed dark shadows upon its
allegedly bright future as a revolutionary tool to enhance the
interactivity between the mass communicators and the public. Reporters are
complaining about late or no replies from sources via e-mail. There was no
real-time interactivity to meet the deadline. Some reporters said that even
people they already knew did not reply to e-mails from time to time. As
seen in their cases, the familiarity between human sources and the reporter
does not matter with regard to prompt interactivity, when it comes to
e-mail. Regardless of prior acquaintance, e-mail could not guarantee prompt
The problem of interactivity through e-mail shown in this study might come
from the student reporters' lack of legitimacy as real reporters. First of
all, human sources did not reply promptly or often. When the subjects of
this study finally contacted them by phone after laborious but fruitless
trials to get in touch with them by e-mail, and introduced themselves as
student reporters, the sources asked first if the story would be run in
actual papers. One subject said that, when she could not guarantee the
physical product, the source did not want to answer any questions and asked
her not to e-mail or call him again. Even though there were some cases
where the subjects' stories were run on commercial or non-commercial
papers, the student reporters could not say for sure if their stories would
run, before the editors decided to run them. The aforementioned subject
never got any quotes from the source but complained about the
ineffectiveness of her efforts to contact the sources by e-mail.
As was the case of the men's tennis reporter, continual efforts to reach
the sources by e-mail can have some effects. As she mentioned, however, it
happened once out of 20 times after she sent e-mails to sources. If we
think about some cases in which the reporters should e-mail too many times
in order to get information to sources, I doubt whether we can still talk
positively about effective interactivity through the Internet features.
Internet as a Traditional Media Agenda-Setter?
As technology has changed the ways of reporting and the content of the
news throughout the history of journalism (Schudson, 1995; Shapiro, 1999;
Sampedro, 2000; Reisch, 2001), the Internet could be believed to be a new
agenda setter of the conventional media (Shapiro, 1999; Garrison, 2001;
Reisch, 2001; Poindexter et al., forthcoming). The present study, however,
seems to show some evidence that conflicts with the expectation of the
potential agenda setting function of the Internet. The reporters returned
to using conventional methods of news reporting – checking facts by phone
or by personal meeting. Even though the Internet gives a chance for an
extended 'possibility' of access to the enormous records, and therefore
provides the 'potential' agenda-setting effects of the new media on the
traditional media, the lack of credibility and reliability of the Internet
sources and the lack of guaranteed interactivity via e-mail cast suspicions
on the potential for such agenda-setting effects.
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