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BREAKING IN YOUR IN-BOX:
AN EXPLORATORY CONTENT ANALYSIS
OF ONLINE NETWORK BREAKING NEWS E-MAILS
Timothy E. Bajkiewicz, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, School of Mass Communications
University of South Florida
Jessica Smith, M.A.
Instructor, Journalism and Mass Communication
Abilene Christian University
Presented at the 89th Annual Convention of the
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
August 2-6, 2006 - San Francisco, CA
Please send all correspondence to the first author:
4202 E. Fowler Ave, CIS 1040
University of South Florida
Tampa, FL 33620-7800
[log in to unmask]
Millions of Internet users subscribe to breaking news alerts
sent by electronic mail from online news organizations—a new media
phenomenon about which no scholarly research yet exists. Using media
gatekeeping theory, this study content analyzed 875 such e-mails
gathered over 26 weeks from ABCNews.com, CBSNews.com, CNN.com,
FoxNews.com, and MSNBC.com. Among other findings, MSNBC.com sent more
and more understandable e-mails, while CBSNews.com sent out the
longest and most difficult to read e-mails.
During perhaps the earliest recorded breaking news event,
Pheidippides ran 156 miles from Athens to Sparta in 490 B.C. to
enlist the Spartans' help in defeating the Persians' imminent
invasion of Marathon (Baldwin, 1998). In the satirist Lucian's
second-century rendition, he ran back to the besieged city and then
the 26-odd miles to Athens, where he promptly fell dead. Today,
online journalists could no doubt relate to time and performance
pressures, but they would probably suggest a less exhausting (and
lethal) route and instead have Pheidippides send a breaking news e-mail.
Still considered the Internet's "killer app" (Swartz, 2004,
June 15), electronic mail ranked as 2004's most popular online
activity, with 58 million American adult e-mail users out of 70
million total online users—a 29% increase in e-mail use from just
four years earlier (Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2005). Much
has changed in a decade, when a 1994 Washington Post article
complained of e-mail overload and quaintly boasted how "an e-mail
address still imparts a certain exclusive, cutting-edge glamour"
(Leiby, 1994, May 31, p. B1). Then, worldwide users exchanged 800
million e-mails monthly; now 136 billion e-mails travel daily, with
two-thirds being spam (Crossman, 2006, February 1).
When electronic news organizations began coming online in the
mid-1990s ("New on the Net", 1995, August 31) they eventually
recognized e-mail's potential. Labeling e-mails as breaking news has
been criticized for overuse ("Flagrant overuse taints breaking news
label", 2002, May 9), but by the end of 2001, online network news
operations had made breaking news e-mail alerts available to their
users (Palser, 2001). The number going online for news continues to
grow, with some 50 million daily by the end of 2005 (Pew Internet &
American Life Project, 2006). About 23% of those who have visited an
online news site, or around 11.5 million, request some kind of news
alert, with 30% choosing to receive general news or headlines—twice
as many as the next-chosen alert topic, weather.
To date, no research has been done about breaking news
e-mails, save for an unscientific examination and commentary by
Palser (2001). This paper describes an exploratory content analysis
of a convenience sample of 875 breaking news e-mails gathered over 26
continuous weeks in 2005 and 2006 from the five major American news
organizations that have both a broadcast or cable and online
presence: ABCNews.com, CBSNews.com, CNN.com, FoxNews.com, and
MSNBC.com. These five organizations represent some of the most
visited online news organizations in the world as of June 2005, with
more than 64 million combined unique users (Hansell, 2005, July 13).
The concept of breaking news has likely existed since the
beginning of human communication (Marshack, 2003), but access to that
information has been historically limited because of high access
cost, especially when considering the telegraph and early
broadcasting sets (Folkerts & Teeter, 1998). News organizations have
traditionally had to consider the production costs associated with
breaking news, which created a relatively high importance threshold
(Abramowitz, 1997, March 7). As someone at a broadcast network news
operation put it, even after an airline crash there were not "enough
dead" to interrupt regular programming (p. 7). Breaking news e-mails
redefine this threshold with relatively low production costs and an
unobtrusive nature that carries few potential negative consequences,
such as the loss of advertising revenue or users. These e-mails may
realize the Internet's potential important information nearly instantaneously.
Communicating breaking news, or "news which happens without
any warning and is important enough to warrant immediate coverage"
(Abramowitz, 1997, March 7, p. 7), is no doubt one of the reasons
humanity still exists. Our need to share timely, even lifesaving,
information dates to the very beginnings of language about 100,000
years ago, followed by prehistoric humans leaving images and symbols
created as early as 35,000 B.C. (Marshack, 2003). From Greek times
through the 19th century, simple one-way messages were routinely sent
with everything from chains of beacon fires to weapon's fire
(Headrick, 2003). Samuel Morse's first telegraph line in 1844 ended
communication's reliance on transportation and launched instantaneous
electronic communications (Folkerts & Teeter, 1998).
Radio distinguished itself as the medium of immediacy with
Roosevelt's Depression-era fireside chats and Edward R. Murrow's
riveting live broadcasts from London during WWII (Bliss, 1991). When
television was introduced at the New York World's Fair in 1939,
advocates were excited about covering live, breaking news, although
they thought such coverage would be the exception instead of the rule
it has become (Tuggle & Huffman, 2001). Americans first truly
gathered around the "national hearth" for breaking news during the
1963 coverage of the Kennedy assassination and funeral (Bliss, 1991).
The 1973 Watergate hearings, 1986's Challenger disaster, and
September 11, 2001, have demonstrated electronic media's unparalleled
dominance in providing the latest information to ever-demanding audiences.
Development of Online News
The Internet's approach to news advanced in 1994. First, on
January 17 a massive earthquake struck Los Angeles and was eventually
blamed for 51 deaths (Rojas & Wilson, 1994, January 24). Much like
the information link radio provided during 1912's Titanic disaster
(Bliss, 1991), then-recently available electronic mail offered many
victims the only way to communicate with concerned relatives around
the country in the chaotic aftermath (Belsie, 1994, January 20). That
was also the year the Big Three networks went online (Biddle, 1994,
February 8). During the Internet's early era of commercial online
portal services, CBS was first when they teamed up with Prodigy in
February on coverage of the Winter Olympics. Later that year NBC
joined with Prodigy and America OnLine (AOL), with plans of expanding
onto CompuServe and their then-parent company General Electric's
GEnie for a potential four million online users.
Online news offerings came of their own in August 1995 with
the launch of CNN.com, including "frequent news updates, plus feature
stories, 3,000 photos, 200 sound files and 100 video clips….interview
transcripts, entertainment reviews and even virtual 'studio tours' of
CNN's Atlanta newsrooms" ("New on the Net", 1995, August 31). CNN
beat out The New York Times by six months as the first major news
organization to go online independently (Straus, 1996, January 23).
By early 1996 users could visit CBSNews.com, which impressed users
and experts with complete coverage of that June's political
conventions, including live video ("Celebrities", 1996, June 6), but
a year later one report said CBS's effort "still lags" (Kloer, 1997,
May 2, p. 4D). MSNBC.com joined the fray that July (Yant, 1996, July
15), and Fox News and their website launched in October ("Fox News
Channel signs on", 1996, October 7). ABCNews.com launched in May 1997
(Kloer, 1997, May 2). By 1999, Houck listed all these sites, with the
notable exception of CBSNews.com, as offering breaking news stories
and video reports, instead of "regurgitation of articles found in
newspapers and magazines" (p. C2).
It has not been until the early 21st century that the Internet could
handle the avalanche of use from breaking news (Ranter, 2005, June
19). Government sites crashed and the Internet slowed to a standstill
as millions downloaded the Starr report about the Clinton-Lewinsky
affair in 1998. During Election Night 2004, however, the network held
firm as sites such as CNN.com saw 1 million page views a minute.
E-mail and News Web Sites
A third of Internet users say e-mail is the most important
reason to go online (Harper, 2003). Studies discuss e-mail as a point
of contact (Greer & Mensing, 2004; Massey & Levy, 1999; Schultz,
1999) or as a means of interactivity (Schultz, 1999; Tankard & Ban,
1998, August). Use of e-mail on news web sites for contact purposes
has grown dramatically in the last decade, according to research by
Greer and Mensing (2004). The researchers performed a longitudinal
content analysis of 81 newspapers online from 1997 to 2003. Up to
1999, they found that fewer than 60 percent of sites offered staff
e-mail addresses; by 2003, more than 93 percent of sites gave e-mail
links. Others also have found the nearly universal availability of
contact e-mail addresses (Dibean & Garrison, 2001; Schultz, 1999).
In addition to allowing users to contact journalists, many
organizations—from major networks down to college newspapers—allow
users to subscribe to e-mailed updates, alerts, or editions of news.
Although the content of these messages has not been studied, their
presence has been noted. O'Sullivan (2005) found relatively few
e-mail editions of news among Irish media, and he said that indicated
low buy-in of the web as a separate, distinct medium since e-mail was
still primarily viewed as a communication tool between journalists and readers.
Using new technologies for news delivery is an old idea. In 1996—at
least five years before common use of breaking news e-mails—users
could download free applications such as PointCast, which provided
breaking news (from Reuters), weather, sports and other information
as a stand-alone window or as a screensaver (Brown, 1996, March 18).
Pagers also received news updates. Leung and Wei (1999) found that
breaking news notification through pagers reduced the likelihood that
users would seek news through television. By 1999, FoxNews.com was
sending e-mail newsletters to more than 500,000 subscribers
("Exactis.com delivers Fox News e-mail newsletters to more than
one-half million subscribers", 1999, October 25).
The literature is unclear about when online network news sites
began offering breaking news e-mail alerts. In early July 2001,
American Journalism Review columnist Barb Palser, as part of a
non-scholarly examination of such alerts, noted several as she
"subscribed to all of the breaking news lists that I could find at
national network and newspaper sites" (p. 66). These included
ABCNews.com, CNN.com, washingtonpost.com, NYTimes.com, and Yahoo!
News—she "grudgingly" downloaded MSNBC.com's news software, since
they lacked such e-mails (p. 66). At the time MSNBC.com offered some
of the most aggressive online news delivery options, including their
News Alert software and its 350,000 users as of November of that year
("Email alert from MSNBC.com delivers breaking news instantly to
users' inboxes", 2001, November 28). According to MSNBC's Vice
President of Marketing, they responded to users' overwhelming demand
for literally up-to-the-minute information on 9/11 by offering
breaking news e-mails, beginning in October 2001 (Catherine Captain,
personal communication, March 28, 2006). FoxNews.com and CBSnews.com
soon followed with their own alerts.
Breaking News E-mail and Gatekeeping
When a news network decides which events merit a breaking news
e-mail to subscribers, it acts as a gatekeeper, a role long
recognized and studied in mass communication literature. In Lewin's
(1947) study of group life, he talked about "persons in 'key
positions'" (p. 143) who selected groceries that moved through
channels from production to the dinner table. Lewin said that either
gatekeepers or impartial rules governed any point where opposing
forces necessitated a decision. White (1950), with his famous
collaborator "Mr. Gates," first applied Lewin's concept to mass
communication. White concluded that if other editors were like Mr.
Gates, "the community shall hear as a fact only those events which
the newsman, as the representative of his culture, believes to be
true" (p. 390). This idea continued with Sasser and Russell (1972),
who concluded that "there is no such thing as news of the day
important to the public." At the very least, editors were not trained
to share the same news values. The researchers' study of newspapers
and television stations found that they consistently covered major
news events but generally shared few other topics.
The role of groups, organizations, and routines in gatekeeping
did not go neglected for long (Donohue, Olien, & Tichenor, 1989;
Shoemaker, 1991; Shoemaker, Eichholz, Kim, & Wrigley, 2001). The
"structural context" of which individuals are a part affects the
gatekeeping decisions they make (Donohue, Olien, & Tichenor, 1989).
Constraints of deadlines and space (Donohue, Olien, & Tichenor, 1989;
Shoemaker, 1991) affect gatekeeping decisions, as does the platform
on which news will appear.
Traditional news values applied to local television news (Harmon,
1989), but other research suggested that some of those values were
more important than others. Abbott and Brassfield (1989) found that
television gatekeepers were more likely to weigh timeliness more
heavily than newspaper editors. These findings about organizational
and group influences fit with Lewin's early contention that rules
could act as gatekeepers, and Shoemaker, Eichholz, Kim, and Wrigley
(2001) offer a useful definition of gatekeeping that includes both
people and processes: "Gatekeepers are either the individuals or the
sets of routine procedures that determine whether items pass through
the gates" (p. 235).
Although story selection is one of the most common applications for
gatekeeping, the theory also plays a role in news presentation.
Donohue, Tichenor, and Olien (1972) broadened gatekeeping to include
"selection, shaping, display, timing, withholding, or repetition of
entire messages or message components" (p. 43). A breaking news
e-mail certainly causes repetition of message components, as well as
depending heavily on timeliness. Subscribers often receive a brief
description of a news event soon after it happens, and they often
will be able to find more details updated on the provider's web site.
Harper (2003) said the ability to update breaking news online makes
it even more likely to pass through the media gates. Stories that
make it through the gate often have a strong positive force
(Shoemaker, 1991) and are likely to be repeated.
Many researchers agree that gatekeeping is not dying, but
evolving as technology has made so many sources available to users
(Blake, 2004, August; Singer, 2001, 2005, August). Studies have
looked beyond processes to online news content. Singer (2001), who
examined newspapers in print and online, concluded that the web was a
local niche for online newspapers to fill with print content. Singer
(2001) and Blake (2004) suggested geography or proximity as a gate
for online news. Since users do have a world of information at their
fingertips, Singer (2005) later suggested that journalists and their
news organizations provide credibility to news in "today's rowdy,
unbounded information environment" (p. 24). This vetting function
gives traditional news sources currency on the Web, where they find
unique presentation options for the news.
Instead of merely writing or speaking about an event, online
journalists have hypermedia and multimedia capabilities that can
offer "additional background, detail, and most importantly, context"
(Pavlik, 2001). Hypermedia, or the ability to link among online
objects, and multimedia elements, such as audio and video, give
content that can flesh out many stories. These features present extra
gates; organizations must decide which components will make it
through. If used carefully and intentionally, these additional
features can offer all the background and context that Pavlik
advocated. However, Livingston and Bennett (2003) warned that users
have "no guarantees that technologies will not be used simply as
glitz factors" (p. 364).
This exploratory content analysis of breaking news e-mails
provides an ideal research situation when considering media
gatekeeping. Shoemaker (1996) cited White's (1950) landmark study as
preferable because the research design included rejected stories,
instead of only examining those published. Similarly, comparing
breaking news e-mails among the five chosen broadcast/cable/online
providers gives a glimpse into the messages not sent, since
presumably all had similar access to information regarding breaking
news events. Examining the intersection of impersonal, mass-mediated
news alerts and the perhaps more intimately perceived e-mail in-box
presents a unique opportunity to continue expanding media gatekeeping
theory into the procedures and products of new media.
Research Definition and Questions
After considering the research literature regarding online
news, its delivery, and media gatekeeping, for this study a breaking
news e-mail is defined as an e-mailed, perhaps hyperlinked news
headline delivered by an opt-in, subscription basis, at the
discretion of an online news provider. Being the first known
scholarly research on this topic, the researchers posed several broad
RQ1: How many breaking news e-mails were sent by the five
chosen online network news organizations (ABCNews.com, CBSNews.com,
CNN.com, FoxNews.com, and MSNBC.com), and how did they compare by the
day of the week sent?
RQ2: How long were the breaking news e-mails, by number of
total words, average number of characters per word, and average
number of words per e-mail?
RQ3: How readable were the breaking news e-mails, using
recognized readability metrics?
RQ4: How did the breaking news e-mails, analyzed by network,
fall into recognized categories of news content, and how did the
networks compare on that content?
RQ5: How often and in what way did the breaking news e-mails
RQ6: How did the networks compare by which sent the first
breaking news e-mail for given events?
The first author established two different free e-mail accounts and
subscribed to the breaking news e-mail alerts offered by ABCNews.com,
CBSNews.com, CNN.com, FoxNews.com, and MSNBC.com. These five web
sites represented American major news organizations with both a
broadcast/cable and online offerings, and they were among the
most-visited online news sites (Hansell, 2005, July 13; see Table 1).
All e-mails gathered from Sunday, September 25, 2005, until Saturday,
March 25, 2006, or a period of 26 continuous weeks, were analyzed,
resulting in a convenience sample of 875 e-mails.
Selected Top Online Global News Destinations, June 2005
# Unique Audience (000s)
From Hansell (2005), p. C1; data cited from Nielsen/NetRatings, June 2005.
During an initial pilot analysis using October data, the researchers
used content coding categories from Journalism.org's "State of the
News Media 2005." The two researchers and a third colleague coded 20%
of that sub sample, or 33 out of 165 e-mails, to calculate intercoder
reliability. Using Skymeg Software's (2005) free Program for
Reliability Assessment with Multiple Coders, or PRAM, results were
encouraging. For the final study, 10% of the sample, or 88 of 875
e-mails, was coded; statistics showed less agreement than during the
pilot analysis. For content, Holsti= 0.875 and Cohen's Kappa = 0.858.
For attribution, Holsti= 0.837 and Cohen's Kappa = 0.762, which are
considered acceptable for an exploratory study (Lombard, Snyder-Duch,
& Bracken, 2005).
The time of breaking news e-mail delivery was a special
consideration for this study. ABCNews.com and MSNBC.com send their
breaking news e-mails from the west coast, so all times were
recalibrated for Eastern Time. Also, MSNBC.com offered breaking news
through two different services; both were gathered and analyzed. In
the event of duplications, the first to be sent was coded. Microsoft
Excel 2003 was used to calculate the number of words per e-mail and
establish days of the week based on calendar date. To generate
readability statistics, all e-mail body copy from each network was
entered into Microsoft Word 2003; these included the total number of
words, average number of character per word, percentage of passive
sentences, Flesch Reading Ease, and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. SPSS
14.0 for Windows calculated all other statistics.
The study period included many different news events, including
several hurricanes and other disasters, federal indictments, Supreme
Court justices, terrorist bombings, celebrity deaths, and the 2006
Winter Olympics. In responding to RQ1, from September 25, 2005, until
March 25, 2006, MSNBC.com sent out the most breaking news e-mails
with 230 (26.3% of the total 875), and CNN.com sent the fewest at 104
(11.9%; see Table 2). Cross-tabulation of e-mails by network and day
of the week was not significant (X2=22.812, df=24, p=.531).
Number of Breaking News E-mails, by Network (N=875)
# of Breaking News E-mails
% of Total
Frequencies and readability statistics generated by Microsoft Word
2003 to respond to RQ2 show that breaking news e-mails sent out by
CBSNews.com contained 3,044 words, the most for the sample. CNN.com's
e-mails contained the fewest, with 1,984 words. Word lengths were
closely comparable; those from FoxNews.com ranked highest, averaging
5.3 characters per word, with e-mails from CBSNews.com ranking
lowest, averaging 5.0 characters per word. (See Table 3.)
Number of Total Words and Mean Number of Characters per Word, by
# of Total Words
Mean # of Characters per Word a
a Microsoft Word 2003 does not generate standard deviations.
Continuing to respond to RQ2, results of a one-way ANOVA for
the mean number of words per e-mail, by network, were significant
(SS=17281.122, df=4, F=149.404, p=.000), with a mean number of 14.85
words per e-mail for the entire sample. These results were similar to
those in Table 3, with CBSNews.com again topped the list with a mean
of 24.33 words per e-mail. However, MSNBC.com ranked with the fewest
mean number of words per e-mail, with 11.90. The Bonferroni post-hoc
generated six significant mean comparisons, including all four
comparisons with CBSNews.com and two others with CNN.com. (See Table 4.)
Responding to RQ3, Microsoft Word 2003's readability statistics
included the percentage of passive sentences, Flesch Reading Ease,
and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. Breaking news e-mails from
CBSNews.com were the most passive, with 24% of all sentences. The
analysis found the lowest percentages of passive sentences in e-mails
from FoxNews.com and MSNBC.com, both at 5%. E-mails from MSNBC.com
also had the best Flesch Reading Ease score at 54.1 (a
Number of Total Words and Mean Number of Characters per Word, by
Mean Number of Words
CBSNews.com a b, c, d
CNN.com a, e, f,
ABCNews.com b, e
MSNBC.com d, f
a p=.000; b p=.000; c p=.000; d p=.000; e p=.000; f p=.000
higher score is better); Microsoft Word 2003 recommends the average
document score between 60 and 70. Alerts from CNN.com scored the
worst with 40.7. The text from MSNBC.com e-mails was also found to be
at the lowest Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level at 7.8; Microsoft Word 2003
recommends the average grade level of 7.0 to 8.0. E-mails from
CBSNews.com and CNN.com were found to have the highest grade level at
11.9—almost a high school graduate. (See Table 5.)
Percentage of Passive Sentences, Flesch Reading Ease Score, and
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, by Network (N=875)
% Passive Sentences
Flesch Reading Ease Score
Responding to RQ4, cross-tabulation of e-mails by network and
content was found to be significant (X2=65.526, df=48, p=.047). Of
all the 875 breaking news e-mails from all five networks, most were
categorized as Government/Politics (220); the next largest category
had only about half as many, Crime (112). Iraq was its own category,
and ranked fourth most with 105 e-mails. Note that e-mails were
categorized as Terror (54) less than half as often as Crime. The
categories of the fewest e-mails: Sports (17) and Military (8; see Table 6).
Number of Breaking News E-mails by Content Categories, by Network (N=875)
* Most in category
Responding to RQ5, the relationship between e-mails by network and
attribution was significant (X2=159.156, df=28, p=.000). The vast
majority of all 875 e-mails from the five online news networks were
not attributed (554, or 63%). A named source was attributed for 141
of the total e-mails, or 16% of the time. Unnamed officials were
attributed 70 times, while some other unnamed source was cited 27
times; combining these two results in 97 total unnamed sources used,
or 11% of the total number of e-mails—creeping toward the number of
named attributions. When all three source attributions are combined,
the resulting 238 attributions of some kind of source are still only
27% of the total. It is interesting to note that if the attribution
totals for AP (25), Other News Media (23), and Reuters (7) are
combined, the resulting 55, or 6% of the total, is twice as many
attributions as any network gave itself (28, or 3%; see Table 7).
Number of Breaking News E-mails by Attribution Categories, by Network (N=875)
Other News Media
* Most in category
Finally, RQ6 addressed how networks compared by which sent the first
breaking news e-mail when all responded to a given news event. At
least two of the five networks sent an e-mail for 178 coded events,
totaling 549 e-mails, or 62.7%, which was significant (X2=53.927,
df=16, p=.000). All five networks sent breaking news e-mails for 23
of these events, totaling 115 e-mails, which was also significant
(X2=40.959, df=16, p=.001). Events included John Roberts'
confirmation as Chief Justice, the West Virginia coal mine accident,
and Coretta Scott King's death. When all networks participated,
MSNBC.com sent 10 e-mails first, or 43.5% of the time. CNN.com was
second with five e-mails. ABCNews.com sent the fewest e-mails first,
one, and had the highest number of e-mails in fifth place with 10.
When only considering the top two ranks for all 178 events, totaling
356 e-mails, MSNBC.com sent the most e-mails first with 62, or 34.8%
of the time. CBSNews.com ranked second with 39, or 21.9%. In all,
MSNBC.com ranked first or second 28.9% of the time, while CBSNews.com
was next, sending e-mails first or second 20.5% of the time.
ABCNews.com and CNN.com tied for sending the fewest first breaking
news e-mails with 55, or 15.4% of the time. Interestingly, about
one-third of all 875 e-mails, 279 e-mails, were events mentioned by
only one network. These included the first gold medal at the Turin
Olympics (ABCNews.com), the Chicago White Sox winning the first World
Series since 1917 (FoxNews.com), and the 1,000th execution in the
United States (MSNBC.com).
Discussion and Conclusions
In this initial scholarly study on breaking news e-mails, the five
chosen online news networks distinguished themselves in different
ways. MSNBC.com clearly dominated, with the highest number of e-mails
(230), the lowest percentage of passive sentences (5%, tied with
FoxNews.com), the highest (most desirable) Flesch Reading Ease score
(54.1), and the lowest Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level (7.8). CBSNews.com
sent out the most verbose e-mail alerts, with almost 25 words per
e-mail, and MSNBC.com sent e-mails with half as many words. In terms
of content, all five networks sent many e-mails about the war in Iraq
(12% of all e-mails). ABCNews.com ranks highest for e-mails in the
potentially stressful Weather and Terror categories. Meanwhile,
MSNBC.com seemed to enjoy the synergies of belonging to a corporate
network group that includes NBC, MSNBC, and CNBC; MSNBC.com sent out
the most number of e-mails in the International, Business, and
Celebrity categories. Unfortunately, 63% of all the e-mails had no
attribution. In this age of news scandals and dubious Internet
sources, these established and respected news organizations should know better.
Media gatekeeping proved a viable theoretical perspective for
this study, and its findings suggest implications. First, previous
concerns regarding constraints of space (Donohue, Olien, & Tichenor,
1989; Shoemaker, 1991) seemingly apply to breaking news e-mails, as
well. The mean number of words per e-mail was 14.85. Providers could
have sent the equivalent of a news novel via e-mail, yet each chose
to send only headlines. Also, studies by Blake (2004) and Singer
(2001) found proximity to be key in gatekeeping decisions. This study
refutes that finding, at least in the context of e-mail alerts. The
war in Iraq was the subject of 12% of all e-mails, reflecting the
United States' geo-political interest. In addition, providers sent
slightly more e-mails with International content. This may be a
reflection of how a globalized world has caught up to a worldwide medium.
As this was only an exploratory study, the potential for
future research is wide open. This could include comparing online
news providers by analyzing breaking news e-mails in terms of
specific news items. Also, the content categories used in this study
could be further expanded to be more sensitive, especially the
categories of Government/Politics and Crime. In addition, research
could further explore the relationships among variables with news
organizations such as those chosen for this study, or expand the
research to include online newspapers and other online news providers.
Hopefully this study has laid a foundation for future research
related to the unique convergence of communication with content that
occurs with breaking news e-mails. Online news providers know the
stakes are high: 50 million users access online news daily, and more
than 11 million of them subscribe to e-mail alerts (Pew Internet &
American Life Project, 2006). Although breaking news may be more
likely to pass the editor's gate (Harper, 2003), providers must
choose their breaking news e-mails wisely. Failure risks alienating
the user by cluttering their in-box with what may soon be considered
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